As adolescence is such a struggle to establish one’s own identity, with not every refugee of puberty finishing the job, it’s hardly surprising that the right to pigeon hole one’s self, rejecting the reductive, caricaturing tendency of others who are only too happy to take the initiative on your behalf, is a recurring theme in teen movies.
We’ve enjoyed a thousand and one school dramas, whose treatment of teen angst has varied from the condescending, to the understanding, to the cruel, with the determining factor being whether the writers of each were loners, bullied or bullies, no doubt; but seldom seen, outside the confines of American television, is the twee version. That gap has now been filled.
Michael Pavone’s heavy-handed life lessons drama, owes much, and by much I mean everything, to the 80′s series, The Wonder Years. When discussing the depth of the tribute, the word remake would not be uncharitable; the boy at the centre of this tolerance parable narrates the story from the present, precisely mimicking the cadence and everyman intonation of the never seen adult Fred Savage. The situations, the geeky best friend, the attractive but unobtainable girl who inexplicably is drawn to the shy but decent protagonist, all seems patterned on the sweetly nostalgic TV series. Disastrously for Pavone, however, his reverence has extended to his directorial style.
That’s What I Am isn’t a movie, sadly, it’s an unreconstructed piece of television and one that’s suffused with the values of the US networked shows of yesteryear. In the absence of any cinematic quality – static framing, flat composition, the only clue to its big screen pretentions is the presence of Ed Harris as the inspirational English teacher whose ambiguous sexuality, intended as a compliment to the A-story of a boy partnered with a social pariah on a school project, only detracts from it, begging the question, whose story is it?
That isn’t to say that it’s a wasted exercise; the performances are uniformly good, though characterisation is shorn of complication and depth, and it’s remarkably earnest and straight laced for a modern movie, reviving the moral certitude of its sixties period setting. This earnestness is often the decisive factor in rescuing scenes that walk the fault line between mawkishness and piety.
A mother’s response to the question of why God would make a person who was ripe for mockery, with the suggestion that, ‘maybe God didn’t think there was anything wrong with him’, is the sort of wholesome sentiment that recurs throughout.
To a modern audience, the lack of cynicism, indeed the total absence of anything resembling an undercutting of the apple pie messages branded into the audience’s eyes, might give the drama an air of antiquated irrelevance but, in the right mood, it could also give the story an endearing quality.
Ironically, for a film steeped in the language of tolerance, it’s the audience that’s asked to tolerate these shortcomings and embrace the message. Why not, you may ask? After all, isn’t it enough that it’s well acted, well intentioned and good natured? Possibly, but when one considers an altogether more bold and imaginative take on growing up, the likes of Richard Ayoade’s Submarine for example, That’s What I Am seems sanctimonious and naïve by comparison.
Interestingly it was funded by WWE Entertainment, formerly the World Wrestling Federation, that’s made its money from paying men to disfigure themselves with steroids and then beat each other with steel chairs for the appreciation and pay-per-view dollars of a baying crowd. “Human dignity + compassion = peace”, indeed.
That’s What I Am is available on Blu-ray now.