Review: That’s What I Am

Nostalgic coming-of-age drama set in the sixties with Chase Ellison playing a 12 year-old high school student just half a rung ahead of the nerds and misfits in the school social standings. Ellison is preoccupied with trying to win the affections of the pretty and popular Mary Clear (Mia Rose Frampton, yes she’s Peter’s kid), who isn’t nearly as unattainable as she first appears (i.e. Ellison’s just about the only kid she hasn’t taken for a pre-teen twirl). His favourite teacher is English teacher Mr. Simon (Ed Harris), a widowed, bowtie sporting man who assigns Ellison the task of teaming up with the school’s biggest leper on a writing assignment. That leper would be hulking, big-eared, red-haired Stanley, AKA ‘Big G’ (Alexander Walters). Ellison, kind of an average kid at best, is unhappy with this potentially humiliating pairing, but Mr. Simon says he believes Ellison has what it takes to be a good writer, and so he reluctantly approaches the social pariah, who turns out to be a surprisingly intelligent, sensitive young man as they decide to write about ‘tolerance’ (Which annoys me because ‘acceptance’ is a much better word if you ask me). The two bond, as Ellison sees how brave ‘Big G’ is for having the obvious size and strength to fight back at the bullies, but chooses not to stoop to their level. Meanwhile, a rumour starts to circulate about Mr. Simon’s personal life, thanks to the bigoted and holier-than-thou father (played third generation WWE anti-hero, Randy Orton) of one of the school bullies. He alerts the school principal what his son (who was publicly scolded by Mr. Simon for his bullying) has told him about the long widowed teacher. If Mr. Simon isn’t removed, he’ll son out of Mr. Simon’s class, and will alert all the other parents to what he ‘knows’. Rather than answer the charges, Mr. Simon stubbornly refuses to answer Madigan when pushed, because he’s a long-serving, well-liked and dedicated teacher. His record should speak for itself, right? Daniel Roebuck plays Ellison’s hard-working, rather demanding father, Amy Madigan is the principal, whilst Molly Parker is Ellison’s more affectionate, compassionate mother.

Like “Legendary” before it, there’s nothing particularly wrong with WWE Studios’ latest, except it’s not all that good. Oh, it’s pleasant, watchable, and well-acted, sure. In fact, it’s probably a bit better than “Legendary” and most other WWE Films for that matter. But make no mistake, this 2011 drama from writer-director Michael Pavone (who subsequently wrote and directed “The Reunion” for WWE Studios) hasn’t got an original bone in its body. To be honest, there’s an awful lot of “The Wonder Years” in this film, so I hope you liked that show. It’s my favourite show of all-time, so whilst I’m annoyed at the plagiarism (and it sure as hell doesn’t compare favourably), I have to admit, at least it’s kinda pleasant and tolerable. It’s also the least likely project for a WWE film, let alone one with a role for WWE Superstar Randy Orton, best-known for his on-screen persona of danger, viciousness, complete unpredictability and mental/emotional instability. And this applies to his runs as both ‘heel’ (bad guy) and his current ‘face’ (good guy) stint, I might add. Oh, well, at least he’s somewhat well-cast as a stern, homophobic father. I’m not sure if it is in league with Orton the man, but that’s certainly in his range as a performer and he acquits himself rather well. He might have a future in the acting world should he choose to pursue one (please, no ‘Wrestling is Fake’ jokes, because ‘fake’ is the wrong term, and will just look like an ill-educated fool). Mind you, it’s a tiny role in the film, so let’s not call him Olivier or anything yet. He’s decent here and in “12 Round 2” at least. Chase Ellison and the big-eared Alexander Walters (the latter looking like Randy Orton with red hair and no tan) are also fine in essentially the two lead roles, though Walters looks like he’s 30 at least. Amy Madigan is fine as the fair-minded but concerned principal, while even better is her real-life husband Ed Harris, in one of his better performances of late as the popular and inspirational English teacher. His Mr. Simon isn’t as memorable as some of the teachers past (including some of the interesting teachers on “The Wonder Years”), but he’s easily the best thing in the film. Molly Parker is well-cast as Ellison’s loving and understanding mother, though not often called upon.

There’s no getting around it, this film owes way too much to “The Wonder Years”. Yes, it comes with a ‘Based on a true story’ tag, but hey, so did “Fargo” and how did that one work out? (Yeah, the Coen Brothers are lying fools). A subplot involving getting an ID bracelet for a girl? That was in one of my favourite episodes of the show. The harsh and cold (but probably loving in his own way) dad critical of his son’s ability to mow the lawn? Check. The main character being picked on by the school bully? Check once again. The main character faced with all manner of obstacles on his way to meet a girl? Yup, “The Wonder Years” did that one often as well. The main character forced to interact with the biggest oddball in the school for an assignment? Margaret Farquhar says hello to you, Mr. Pavone (who, by the way, comes from a background writing and directing TV shows like “Everwood” and “Jack and Jill”). Even the inspirational teacher targeted by the small-minded for being ‘different’ has the faint whiff of an episode where a young, idealistic teacher ruffled faculty feathers on “The Wonder Years”. We even get the final image of a kid riding his bike through the neighbourhood as the screen fades to black. That was just about every episode of “The Wonder Years”, except here the closing song is the aptly-chosen (but awful) ‘Teach the Children Well’. And yes, we even get the nostalgic voiceover. On the TV show it was Daniel Stern, in this film it’s Greg Kinnear. I really wouldn’t bring all of this up if there wasn’t so much of it that could be located in that one specific TV show, but it’s true. It’s all been done before on “The Wonder Years” (and to be fair, probably elsewhere too like “Stand By Me” and “Mr. Holland’s Opus” among many others). So whilst I can’t say this film didn’t keep me occupied for its running time, I can’t say anything surprised or thrilled me.

This is stock-standard stuff, and if I wasn’t naturally predisposed to enjoy such teenage nostalgia material, I’d probably think even less of it. Actually, the kid who freaks out and starts whipping a girl he thinks has ‘cooties’ was a new idea. I’d never seen that one before. Kudos there, Mr. Pavone. It’s a reasonably well-made (if too squeaky clean for some tastes), well-acted film that just frankly isn’t anything special if you’ve watched TV or movies somewhere in the last thirty years or so.

Rating: C+


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