DVD Release Date: Tuesday, August 16, 2011
In 2010, WWE made a solid stride in their film division with “Legendary.” It starred real actors like Patricia Clarkson and Danny Glover, and used WWE Superstar John Cena in a small, supporting role.
They continued down that path with “That’s What I Am” in the spring of 2011. WWE Superstar Randy Orton has a very small role, and doesn’t even make the poster. Three of the film’s child stars and four-time Oscar nominee Ed Harris (easily the most accomplished actor ever to show up in a WWE Studios’ film) adorn the poster instead. That’s a good indicator that this won’t by the typical WWE Studios offering.
Chase Ellison stars as Andy Nichol, a 13-year-old dealing with the pressures of being 13 during the late 1965. Andy isn’t quite a cool kid and he isn’t quite a nerd, so he exists somewhat comfortably during a notoriously uncomfortable time for everybody. His favorite teacher, Mr. Simon (Harris), makes a final assignment for the school year, and each assignment is to be done by a duo. Andy receives Stanley (Alexander Walters in his film debut) as his partner. Stanley is a tall, gangly redheaded student nicknamed “Big G.” The nickname is not a complimentary one – as it stands for “ginger” and is used in a derogatory manner.
Andy’s life is further complicated by his crush on Mary Clear (Mia Rose Frampton), who we’re told by the narrator (an uncredited Greg Kinnear) has pretty much kissed every boy in the seventh grade. Mary’s previous boyfriend was the dreaded Ricky Brown (Jordan Reynolds), who doesn’t like Andy scamming on “his” girl.
With all that already going on, a further development adds even more drama. A rumor goes around school that Mr. Simon is a “homo” (the students use this word, a parlance of the times). When Mr. Simon issues a suspension to a student named Jason (Camille Bourgeois), who repeatedly whipped a girl with his jacket because he thought she had “cooties,” Jason’s father is not too happy. His father is Ed Freel (Orton), who is none too pleased with the idea of a homosexual man teaching his son. He threatens to go to the papers if he has to.
Principal Kelner (Amy Madigan) is fiercely loyal to Mr. Simon, but wants him to publicly deny the accusation, not caring whether it’s true or not. She thinks it would be best for the students. Mr. Simon disagrees, saying it’s because of the students that he mustn’t respond.
These are some pretty weighty issues for a WWE Studios film, and it’s interesting that they set it in 1965. Writer/director Mike Pavone makes the story feel both of that time and our current time. It is a little hokey and has elements of after-school-specials, but the heart is in the right place and the performances feel honest. Harris and Madigan are two actors that class up just about everything they’re in. The younger actors do a good job holding the story together. Shockingly, Orton hits the right notes in a brief but effective performance.
Mr. Simon is a beloved teacher, and excels in getting students to recognize their own gifts, by declaring out loud what they believe themselves to be. Everyone in “That’s What I Am” figures something out, and that’s what makes this a worthwhile film.