That’s What I Am more than just a coming-of-age tale

Were kids just as mean 50 years ago as they were today?  The quote “It has often been said that children are cruel” is displayed at the beginning of That’s What I Am, a remarkable, uplifting exploration of a boy’s journey to manhood amongst the discrimination and trials of a 1960s middle-school.

Written and directed by Mike Pavone, That’s What I Am tells the story of 12-year-old Andy Nichol (Chase Ellison) who is paired with a social outcast for a group project. The outcast, known as “Big G,” (Alexander Walters) is a too-tall, big-eared red head with a geeky demeanor.  The pairing, engineered by beloved teacher Mr. Simon (Ed Harris), facilitates Andy’s journey into the geek world, and sets him off on a wild journey of discovery.

After a dramatic school-yard fight, a boy is suspended after being caught by Mr. Simon.  The boy’s father retaliates with a vicious rumor about Mr. Simon’s sexuality. Meanwhile, Big G gathers the courage to confront a school bully. Amidst all these happenings, Andy attempts to survive middle school, get his first kiss, and learn about dignity from an unlikely source: Big G.

That’s What I Am deals with some intense subjects, bullying, prejudice and discrimination, but maintains a humor and a light heart that is central to the film’s success. Nevertheless, we encounter several different forms of bullying in the film, in several different age groups. Big G is subjected to daily ridicule, due to his awkward appearance and geeky demeanor. Other school children are bullied throughout the film.  Mr. Simon is baselessly accused of being a homosexual by an angry parent.  We are reminded that bullying is not age-specific, and that the consequences can be severe for all involved.

This is a film with definite morals, but it delivers them without seeming preachy.  One of film’s central messages is summarized in a phrase created by Mr. Simon.  Mr. Simon entered a local newspaper contest to summarize the way to peace in 25 words or less, and his winning four-word answer was “Human Dignity + Compassion = Peace.”

This road to peace runs through the emotional center of the film.

When Mr. Simon is accused of being a homosexual, he refuses to even dignify the question of his sexuality with an answer, even though it makes the situation more difficult.  Mr. Simon stands by his morals and demonstrates remarkable dignity—setting the tone for the rest of the film.

Although he is picked on the most in school, Big G is also the biggest kid. Even though Big G could be a bully and comes close to hurting a few of the meaner kids in the school, he always restrains himself.  He never abandons his moral base, even as he is pelted with insults and never stoops to the level of his torturers.  Both characters also display remarkable compassion. When learning of the allegations against him, Mr. Simon feels only compassion for his accusers. Big G never truly judges any of his torturers.

Helping the story along is a spot-on 1960s atmosphere that sucks us straight into the film and into the period right away. Bowties, tucked-in shirts and outdated hair styles adorn the screen, and even short-shorts make an appearance. A few well-placed bowler hats, and several even more well-placed vintage cars help set the period and prepare us to deal with the racism and homophobia of a different time period.

This film also perfectly encapsulates the awkward innocence of middle school; the young actors of the film never waver in their convincing portrayal of middle school awkwardness. That’s What I Am is also sure to inspire nostalgia in every audience member.  While this film will certainly not spark the same memories for every viewer, memories of awkward first kisses and awkward physical changes will surely come up.

This tender coming-of-age film will live or die with its smallest cast members, and That’s What I Am soars. It is an inspiring testament to integrity, compassion and the power of the human spirit.  Warm, inspiring and, above all, honest, That’s What I Am is powered by a surprisingly good young cast that is anchored with an amazing performance from Harris.  The acting is believable, and the student-teacher dynamic is portrayed perfectly.

That’s What I Am shows that bullying can come at all ages and in many different forms.  However, this film also shows that dignity and compassion can be found even in the youngest people among us.  Coming-of-age doesn’t necessarily mean becoming a mature, respectable person.  That’s What I Am demonstrates that one can never be too young to embark on the path to peace.

That’s What I Am hits theaters on April 29.


4 stars