There’s a distinct possibility that audiences will see the letters WWE on the poster for That’s What I Am, the new family movie opening in theaters this weekend, and disregard the film out of hand. Frankly, after seeing World Wrestling Entertainment’s previous all-ages effort – the (hopefully unintentionally) creepy Legendary – I wouldn’t blame you. But you’d be missing out on a film that's quite possibly the best live-action family film I've seen in over a decade, albeit hardly the most ambitious. I’m as shocked as you are, and of course pleasantly so. That’s What I Am is an unusually intelligent, sympathetic look back at junior high school, filled with positive messages without ever quite succumbing to sermonizing or ham-fisted melodrama. I couldn’t recommend it more.
The film stars Mysterious Skin’s Chase Ellison as Andy Nichol, an impressively well-characterized junior high schooler in the 1960’s: bright but naïve, flawed but capable of growth. He’s thrown for a loop when his teacher, Mr. Simon (Ed Harris, in an atypically joyful performance), assigns him to complete a class project with ‘Big G,’ a strikingly tall, redheaded boy who is but one of many social pariahs at Andy’s school. Big G is played by Alexander Walters, making an impressive screen debut as a young man who manages to embody goodness and dignity without sacrificing his character’s humanity. He’s just a decent kid, not a Christlike figure, and his influence combined with the typical coming of age tropes like Andy’s first kiss, run-ins with the local bully and an overbearing father takes our hero on a believable and highly entertaining journey towards maturity.
That’s What I Am toys with becoming a ‘Message Film,’ a phrase I usually utter with the same disdain I would use to say ‘Oscar Bait,’ but never quite takes the… well, bait. It is a film with many positive messages that are enforced by an involving story populated with interesting individuals. It’s also that rare film that truly earns its dramatic crescendos, bringing a single, genuine tear to the eye at times when many similar movies would try to elicit howling, but false sobs. It never oversells itself to make even its most earnest points, and as a result That’s What I Am garners my genuine respect. When Mr. Simon becomes victim of a rumor that he is a homosexual – a difficult road for a teacher to weather today, but outright dangerous fifty years ago – the film briefly threatens to shift focus to a standard witch-hunt allegory, but writer/director Michael Pavone acknowledges this path and wisely veers away from it, allowing the subplot to remain ‘sub’ and connecting the theme of tolerance to the rest of the story with dignity and grace.
Pavone also deserves special credit in my eyes for writing a cast of fully realized young characters that actually seem young. It’s easy for adult writers to forget what it feels like to actually be a child and instead put the wisdom of years into the mouths of babes, but even the most precocious of characters in That’s What I Am speak with the unenlightened yet sincere voice of youth, and even the most childish are miraculously never quite reduced to total stereotypes. Racism is curiously never a factor at this heavily integrated school, but it’s easy to write that off as a kind of optimistic historical revisionism. It feels right, the way these children interact, and as a result it may as well be accurate. That's What I Am depicts a rich, intricate world that may just be slightly better than our own. I can accept that, particularly when it's presented with this much class.
But focusing on That’s What I Am’s themes makes it sound like one of those ‘Message Movies’ I hold in such disregard, and that would be unfair. What That’s What I Am is, or possibly am, at its heart, is a precociously entertaining movie for all audiences. Smart, funny, warm and dramatically satisfying on every level. I’ve never given a 10/10 at Crave Online and I have no intention of ever doing so, but I can’t imagine That’s What I Am being any better at what it is, or even am. It’s opening in very limited release but if you can find it in your area, take the kids. And if you don’t have any kids, I hope you go anyway just to see how good it is. (Am.)
Crave Online Rating: 9/10