NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - A sensitive performance from Ed Harris lends a core of quiet integrity to writer-director Mike Pavone's gentle coming-of-age drama, "That's What I Am." But this well-intentioned tween-friendly message movie is earnest to a fault.
Bearing the sanitized feel of a Sundance entry that got hijacked in development by the Hallmark Channel, the movie's measured sentimentality and carefully mapped moral ground make it more likely to resonate as a family cable entry than in theaters. Distributor Samuel Goldwyn's best shot at finding an audience upon its April 29 release is to tap into today's heightened awareness of the blight of adolescent bullying.
Set in small-town California in 1965, the story is told through the voice of 12-year-old Andy (Chase Ellison). He gradually absorbs parallel lessons of tolerance from ridiculed eighth-grade outsider Stanley (Alexander Walters) and the school's compassionate English teacher, Mr. Simon (Harris).
The infectious stigma of geekdom threatens Andy when Mr. Simon pairs him on an end-of-term assignment with brainy Stanley, a freakishly tall pariah whose ginger hair earns him the name Big G. But Andy finds inspiration in the courage of his unwanted companion. His outlook is expanded partly by the caring words of his mother (Molly Parker), and partly by witnessing the cruel abuse of Stanley and his fellow outcasts from school bullies.
When one such incident prompts the temporary suspension of pipsqueak punk Carl Freel (Cameron Deane Stewart), he retaliates by spreading an unsubstantiated but professionally damaging rumor about Mr. Simon's sexuality. Carl gets his moralizing dad (Randy Orton) on board his hate campaign, cornering the sympathetic principal (Amy Madigan) into a difficult confrontation.
In his steadfast refusal to dignify the accusation with a denial, widowed Mr. Simon's martyrdom is emphatically underlined by having him read a Joan of Arc biography to the class. Also heavy-handed is the blanket of literary voiceover dialogue from grown-up Andy, who naturally has become a writer.
The film was produced by WWE Studios, which explains the casting of third-generation wrestling personality Orton in a decent acting debut as Carl's manipulative dad. That this meathead is such an able negotiator, even with someone as sharp as Madigan's principal, stretches plausibility. Too often, Pavone's screenplay slaps contemporary perspective onto characters whose behavior doesn't seem entirely true to their time.
Right down to the tentative romance between Andy and school beauty Mary Clear (Mia Rose Frampton, daughter of '70s rocker Peter Frampton), the script feels somewhat formulaic. But there's enough genuine poignancy and tender insights into the pangs of adolescence to make the drama affecting. And despite mawkish moments, performances by the young cast members are appealing.
The film has a crisp, clean look, with decent period production values. But its chief distinction is Harris' empathetic work in an uncharacteristically subdued role, striking stirring notes especially in some strong scenes with his real-life wife Madigan.