The fact that actual personal experience informs a movie’s narrative flavor doesn’t, of course, guarantee its quality in any way, shape or form — a fact yet again reaffirmed by writer-director Mike Pavone’s That’s What I Am, an awkward mish-mash of observational coming-of-age cliches and half-baked moralizing that feels like a bloated, not particularly well sketched episode of The Wonder Years.
Set in California during the 1960s, the film centers on 12-year-old Andy (Chase Ellison), a bright but small eighth-grade kid whose favorite teacher, Mr. Simon (Ed Harris), pairs him with the school outcast, red-haired and freakishly tall Stanley (Alexander Walters), for a class project. After a dramatic schoolyard incident, Principal Kelner (Amy Madigan) suspends a student for bullying a female classmate, and the vindictive kid feeds his father a malicious rumor about Mr. Simon’s sexuality, causing problems for all involved.
That’s What I Am means to be an earnest, uplifting family film, which is all well and good, but the movie evinces a fitful attention span, and Pavone never comes up with a way to successfully stitch together all the disparate, capital-I issues — from bullying, hormonal bloom, sexual preference and the effects of overbearing parents to wan stabs at race relations and tolerance more broadly — with which he peppers his narrative. He tries via adult narration, but this tack succeeds as neither funny and wistful nor nostalgic and knowing. Furthermore, it’s never paid off with any present day bookend, apart from lame “where are they now” character updates that roll under the end credits. For the full, original review, from ShockYa, click here. (Samuel Goldwyn, WWE Studios, PG, 101 minutes)