That's What I Am

Reviewer: James van Maanen
Rating (out of five): ****

Comparing a movie to an after-school special generally means something derogatory. Not in this case. Not at all. For writer/-director Michael Pavone has given us a coming-of-age, junior-high-school story that's rare in lots of ways. It's the first really good film -- one for which no excuses need be made -- from the WWE (yes, the company formerly known as The World Wide Wrestling Federation). It has a cast -- Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Molly Parker plus a group of remarkably gifted unknowns and even a WWE superstar (Randy Orton) who proves quite a good actor -- of which any movie would be proud to boast; and best of all, it handles coming-of-age and all the complexities of the adult and teenage worlds with remarkable depth, understanding, generosity and tact. In short, it's an important film that will undoubtedly -- due to its provenance (particularly, I fear, that WWE connection) -- get lost in the hustle and bustle of the mainstream mix.

In That's What I Am (one might wish for a better title, actually),  Director Pavone explores a number of major subjects -- bullying, parenting, homosexuality, first love, the outsider, dignity, tolerance, creativity -- but in interesting, off-kilter ways that allows us to see all of them with surprising freshness and grace. Consistently interesting and entertaining, the movie is fun, yet it always speaks to important issues.

Pavone is especially adept at weaving all his themes together so that one does not seem any more important than another -- and all connect to what is basically a terrific coming-of-age tale. The filmmaker and his casting crew -- Denise Chamian, Elizabeth Coulon and Ania Kamieniecki-O'Hare -- have managed to fill every role with splendid performers. Harris, Madigan and Parker are expectedly great, but so are all the young people in the mix. Chase Ellison and Mia Rose Frampton are lovely as, respectively, our designated "hero" and his first love. Frampton brings a particularly saucy, knowing generosity to the proceedings.

         

Even the prime bully at school, played by Jordan Reynolds is given more character than is usual.

But it is the "outsider," the boy who, no matter what, simply cannot fit in, that seals the deal. He is played by first-timer Alexander Walters, who gives one of the most indelible performers ever seen in a kids-growing-up movie. And he does this with nary a cliché in sight (there couldn't be: the character and the actor are simply too unusual). Who The Big G (as he is known) actually is, and why he does what he does, is a kind of mystery that Pavone smartly allows to be only partially solved (sort of like the human character in all its variety and fascination).  Walters is a marvel in the role. He personifies the dignity that is so much a part of this wonderful film.

The filmmaker thankfully resists every opportunity to smooth things over and show us that all's right with the world. Neither does he make the place unduly dark. Instead, it's one of change and -- we hope -- growth. Interestingly, the WWE star Orton takes on the darkest role in the movie and does a fine job of bringing it to life. Even here, Pavone lets us see that the attitudes expressed are not at all far afield from reality then (the film takes place in the 1960s) and probably only a small step or two from it now.

              

Ed Harris is simply wonderful as the teacher everyone loves but no one can help (you'd hardly recognize him here from his great work in The Way Back, which appeared on DVD earlier this summer), and Molly Parker, as the Ellison's character's mom, is warm and real, gracious and graceful. The movie ends with one of my favorite songs of all time on the soundtrack -- one that is as timely now as when it was written decades ago: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's Teach Your Children. What a pleasure to hear the song again, and in this particular movie -- which should be shown in every classroom in the country.

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