That’s What I Am is a tender, uneven but harmless coming-of-age story about impressionable eighth-graders who learn more from their favorite teacher about dignity, self-respect and life than you get in books. Written and directed by Mike Pavone, with a fine, understated, atypical performance by Ed Harris, it may be a feel-good family picture centered on kids, but it offers talismans to live by for people of all ages.
Set in the ’60s of flower children, space launches and Lee Harvey Oswald, it chronicles the daily rituals of high-schoolers who seem to have been invented by the writers of Leave It to Beaver, related through the eyes of 13-year-old Andy Nichol (Chase Ellison), who doubles as the film’s adult narrator. Andy is a good boy with a paper route who works in the principal’s office for a faculty assistant called Old Tuna Breath, and is surrounded by such clichéd Hollywood classmates as the school geek, the school slut and the school hustler, who trades $10 ID bracelets (a prerequisite before a guy can ask a girl to go steady) for baseball cards worth $100,000 today. There is also the school brain, a tall, gangly boy nicknamed Big G (for “Ginger,” because of his flaming orange Lucille Ball hair) who is the never-ending victim of the school bully, and the school miscreant with the redneck father, who causes trouble for the school mentor, Mr. Simon (Ed Harris), after he disciplines the boy for beating up the school’s Ugly Betty.
Mr. Simon wears owlish spectacles and wimpy bow ties, reads fervently from literary classics and acts as a booster for the student talent show, encouraging otherwise timid youngsters to sing, dance and play drum solos. Mr. Simon also drives a flashy convertible he won in a newspaper contest asking participants to offer a solution to world peace in 25 words or less (his prize-winning entry: “Human Dignity + Compassion = Peace”). Everything in this well-intentioned but sometimes dated Growing Up in a Nicer Decade movie is equally simplistic. But the mood shifts to the dark side and the movie gains interest when the cruel gossip mill circulates a rumor that Mr. Simon is gay and the teacher is forced to live up to his slogans. The man voted California’s Teacher of the Year faces a fatal blow to his reputation and his job, and it’s up to Andy and his friends to prove his innocence, but practicing tolerance and justice is hard when the flames of indignation spread to ignorant parents with a moral obligation to protect their children from the wrong role models. Worse, Andy gets no wisdom or guidance from home. His own father blurts out, “Whole country’s going to hell in a handbasket. … hippies protesting the Vietnam war … and now we’ve got homosexuals teaching our kids.” It wasn’t always Wheaties and milk, even in Father Knows Best territory.
All the beloved teacher has to do is deny it to the fair-minded principal (Amy Madigan) and she’ll consider the matter closed. But Mr. Simon indignantly takes the high moral ground, refusing to justify his qualification for his job by compromising the principles of who or what he is in his personal life. Nothing turns out as you might expect, and the plot twists provide unexpected suspense. The teenagers are all superb, and Ed Harris is never for a minute anything less than honest and compelling, bringing the viewer close to tears. In the end, Mr. Simon’s values rub off and the kids learn life is about timing, opportunity and choices. The courage everyone displays in That’s What I Am is not entirely convincing, and I wish the filmmakers had avoided the virulent sentimentality inherent in the finale of every iconic-schoolteacher movie from Goodbye, Mr. Chips to Good Morning, Miss Dove. Nevertheless, I urge you to stick around for the clever and hilarious final credits that reveal how everyone turned out. That’s where the last-minute surprises come in.
That’s What I Am
Running time 101 minutes
Written and directed by Michael Pavone
Starring Ed Harris, Chase Ellison, Molly Parker