That’s What I Am (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Andrew Nichol (Chase Ellison) was paired up by his English teacher, Mr. Simon (Ed Harris), with Stanley (Alexander Walters) to work on a final project. Andrew was embarrassed to work with Stanley because the latter was a social outcast. Stanley was known as Big G, G for ginger, due to his red hair, massive ears, and he stood at least a foot taller than everyone else. Andrew, like most middle school students, just wanted to get by and being paired up with a Frankenstein-like geek garnered a lot of negative attention. Mr. Simon wanted to teach Andrew that passively watching another get bullied didn’t free someone from taking responsibility. Written and directed by Michael Pavone, I wanted to like “That’s What I Am” for its intention but it wasn’t as strong as it could have been because there were plenty of instances when it lost its vision. Andy’s quest to finally go steady with Mary Clear (Mia Rose Frampton), a girl who had kissed every boy in their grade except for Andy, could have been somewhat cute in another movie but bullying is such a serious issue that the two forces didn’t belong in one project without the other feeling like a strange appendage that was better hacked off. The picture also gave us other scenes with elements of bullying like a boy (Camille E. Bourgeois III) inflicting deep cuts on a girl (Sarah Celano) using a metallic zipper on his jacket because he wanted to give her back her “cooties.” (They bumped into each other earlier that day.) If Pavone’s intention was to provide comic relief from intense moments in a form of puppy love, the work felt leaned toward mere silliness. Instead of continually highlighting the consequences of bullying, more relevant than ever with the rate of youth suicides nowadays, the issue was somewhat marginalized. I wasn’t sure how to feel about the writer-director feeling the need to introduce homophobia in the 1960s. Rumors went around the school that Mr. Simon was a homosexual. Since he wouldn’t deny it because he believed that one’s ability to teach should matter more than one’s private life, a boy’s parents’ threatened to create a controversy. On one hand, homophobia and bullying had prejudice and intolerance in common. It inspired the kids to ask questions about what homosexuality meant and some of them, like Andrew, learned how to be a little kinder. On the other hand, the issue of whether or not Mr. Simon was gay overshadowed the issue of bullying. I wondered why the school officials failed to take action if someone being robbed of their lunch or getting punched in the stomach happened every day. Surely it wasn’t just because it was the 1960s. Being bullied is not a rite of passage as a lot of people, to my surprise, tend to argue. The film was designed for children and I was surprised that it didn’t offer solutions that made sense. Kicking bullies in crotch may keep them at bay for about a day but they’re bound to retaliate with more hatred than ever. “That’s What I Am” was a missed opportunity. I can overlook the weak acting by some of the young supporting actors, but what I cannot overlook is when a serious topic is not given the attention it deserves.