September 8, 2011
Review - " That's What I Am " - (on DVD) By Roland Hansen
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That's What I Am
That's What I Am is a Flipped-style period piece about tolerance,
learning people's true value and the cruelty of childhood. It stars the
always terrific Ed Harris as a beloved teacher threatened by rumors
about his sexuality in 1960s Southern California, and Chase Ellison as
a student who learns that there are more important things than what
other people whisper about somebody.
Ellison (of Tooth Fairy) is Andy, a hormonal middle schooler coping
with bullies, girls and fitting in. And that's why he's mortified to be
paired up with the class "geek" for a class project. Andy is a 12-year-
old boy who is a bright student and like most kids of his age, will do
anything to avoid conflict for fear of punishment from his junior high
school students. The bullying at Jefferson Middle School has become
ingrained in the place, with designated areas for the outcasts,
elaborate and cruel rituals to rid oneself of "cooties," and wedgies and
worse for those who don't abide by the rules.
The favorite teacher, Mr. Simon (Ed Harris), pairs Andy Nichol with the
school’s biggest outcast, Stanley, who is popularly known as “Big G”
also (Alexander Walters) for a term project. Andy later learns that
there was truly a twist behind Mr. Simon’s as to why he teamed these
two up for that team project. As the story goes further, many truth
comes to be known. Later Mr. Simon finds himself as a target of a
rumor after Principal Kelner (Amy Madigan) suspends the school’s
biggest bully for beating up a female classmate. When Andy Nichol
watches “Big G” fearlessly confront the school bully, and many other series of events takes place which change the lives of
both young boys and their teacher forever. Andy later finds that “Big G” is brilliant, kind, tolerant and a decent human
being, Andy has ever encountered in his life.
Andy and Big G’s relationship is not the be all and end all of the movie. Mr. Simon is also an important character, a fantastic
teacher who teaches not only what the curriculum states he must, but also tolerance and acceptance. This is all thrown back
at him however when the very values he stands for are ignored completely and he becomes the victim of a parent hate
campaign. A simple and yet effective way of showing bullying isn’t just a school problem. Mr. Simon (Harris), a dapper and
somewhat theatrical teacher, injects himself into this combat and that's when the rumors start.
Harris plays this guy right down the middle, giving us doubts as to his true nature, convincing us that his dignity won't let him
answer the pleas of the principal (Madigan) who wishes he'd defend himself. Andy waffles, as kids will do, trying to decide
how to do the right thing and just what doing the right thing will cost him.
Writer-director Michael Pavone, a veteran of episodic TV, goes off course in the second half of the film. But a winning
narration (read by Greg Kinnear) holds things together. And there's just enough script for a good cast to run with. Harris and
Madigan lift the whole enterprise just by being who and what they are - great actors.
In terms of setting and visual style That’s
What I Am looks like it’s taken directly from
1965, all be it with crisper visuals. Locations,
clothing and a variety of props aid in ensuring
the film has authenticity while also keeping it
enjoyable for a modern and younger audience.
That’s What I Am is a fun and heart warming
story about the struggle people go through if
they are labelled ‘different’, more often than
not by those who consider themselves ‘the
norm’. While throughout the story is delivered
in a light hearted way it still hits home a
serious message, not just to the youth of
today, but everyone. If you’re looking for an
enjoyable movie that will leave you with a smile
on your face come the credits then That’s
What I Am is just that, although do remember
it’s targeted at a younger audience.