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IN SHORT: Just OK. [Rated PG for thematic material throughout, language and some bullying.. 101 minutes]
Ah, the Eighth Grade. Puberty is kicking in big time. Some kids are big. Some are still scrawny. Some of the big kids use size to their advantage to beat up or shake down the slight and scrawny kids. The "geeks". Good times . . .
Also kicking in is the great fear of all parents: the make-out session. All of these elements combine in That's What I Am, a film whose unfortunate title has little to do with a gay coming theme that it would imply. At least it did to Cranky, who hit the eighth grade in the early Seventies, not too long after the mid-1960s California setting of this film. In reality, though, the early 70s were an entire universe away from the md-60s.
We spent our nights in those years, listening to Jean Shepherd on WOR radio (9-11pm, weeknights) whose stories of his own childhood may best be known to you from the adaptation of A Christmas Story, now a staple of end of the year television. Shepherd's style was also an inspiration for the long ago television series The Wonder Years, and most grownups may recognize writer/director Michael Pavone's ode to that kind of storytelling. His film plays out very much like a Shepherd story, with a lead kid narrating his reminiscenses of his awkward time in the 8th Grade at Jefferson Jr. High School, somewhere in California. A time equally spent avoiding bullies and girls. It's what used to be called "innocence." Boys had those kind of years, too <g>.
Andy Nichol (Chase Ellison) is that kid. An average 12 year old (very young for eighth grade though) with a still married mom and dad (Molly Parker and Daniel Roebuck), Andy's objective during his day at the Jefferson Junior High School is to, pretty much, to avoid the geeks and stay out of the way of class bully Carl? [Jason] Freel (Cameron Deane Stewart). Even worse, Andy is warned that he's been targeted as the next boyfriend of the class beauty Mary Clear (Mia Rose Frampton). Mary's last boyfriend, Ricky Brown (Jordan Reynolds), is bigger than Andy and hasn't accepted the fact that he was dumped.
The bigger problem for Andy is his teacher, Mr. Simon (Ed Harris), who assigns him to partner with a red-headed kid, Stanley Miner aka Big G (Alexander Walters), for the class final project. If Big G isn't a geek, he certainly is gawky. And he is more than willing to do all the work and let Andy turn the paper in, but Andy has been raised with good values.
Then comes the day that bully Jason Freel (Cameron Deane Stewart) beats on the homely girl Doris Gebben (Taylor Faye Ruffin), because she accidentally touched him and gave him cooties. Mr. Simon intervenes. Principal Kelner (Amy Madigan) suspends the kid who, not knowing the meaning of the word, defends himself before his own bully - dad Ed Freel (Randy Orton) - by calling the teacher a "homo." Daddy Freel demands the principal fire Mr. Simon for his [perversions] and gives the principal a day or so to do what he says before he "goes to the papers."
Freel doesn't care when he is told that Mr. Simon is a widower. He never remaried (his wife's death was either 12 or 19 years earlier. The storyteller doesn't seem to know) and, well, isn't it obvious???
When the principal asks Mr. Simon to deny the accusation and get the matter off the table, he refuses. Not because he's hiding anything, mind you. It's because "(he's) a teacher and that's all I am." His personal life is private and no one's business. Not even his job lies in the balance.
So there the set-up for That's What I Am, which can't decide if it wants to be the tinged with an edge, nostalgic story of times gone by or something deeper. Writer/director Pavone reaches for the stars but, and we're writing as an adult of parenting age, short of using this film to break open the topic of school bullying, falls a little bit short.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to That's What I Am, he would have paid . . .
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