The latest—and by far most sneaky—attempt to slip one of its wrestlers into multiplexes, WWE Films’ That’s What I Am is surprisingly low on testosterone, a quality leavened by the fact that its message of acceptance and peace is just as broad as the standard Friday Night Smackdown narrative. Previous releases, from The Marine and The Condemned have employed big-name bruisers in slight variations on their natural habitats, which makes this gentle ‘60s-set coming-of-age drama, written and directed by the studio’s vice president, feel even more strange and off-key. It could certainly be a lot worse, something it hints at in a few especially terrible scenes, before eventually settling down into the familiar milieu of fuzzily nostalgic, sub-Wonder Years mediocrity.
Ed Harris grants the film the requisite touch of class as Mr. Simon, a bowtie-wearing bohemian who’s basically touted as the world’s greatest teacher. In a standard move for screenwriters who try to apply greatness to their characters while not possessing it themselves, this excellence is talked of but never seen; Simon spends the movie reading from a book on Joan of Arc and engaging in hackneyed peacenik sloganeering.
He also makes the bold move of pairing floppy-haired everykid Andy Nichol (Chase Ellison) on a class project with school pariah Big G (short for Big Ginger), a tall, gangly boy who the overbearing narration seems intent on casting as some kind of malformed ogre. In keeping with the film’s simplistic mindset, the strangest kid is also the most noble, a quietly heroic martyr who suffers every prank with unyielding dignity.
Like Big G, even a beloved teacher like Mr. Simon is ultimately too weird to survive in the close-minded world of ‘60s America. Suggestions of homosexuality whip parents into a tizzy, a situation Simon exacerbates by refusing to dignify the allegations with a denial. Yet for a movie that spends most of its time focusing on how society shuns and punishes outsiders, That’s What I Am almost entirely ignores the negatives of human nature, focusing on anxious first kisses and neatly cut lawns, proscribing all its bad feelings to a few select bullies.
Foremost among those is WWE wrestler Randy Orton, who’s not exactly convincing as the largest, most musclebound guy in suburbia, an odd-duck status heightened by a tendency to get in the face of everyone he meets. The awkward positioning of one of its own wrestlers as the villain in a treacly vehicle for tolerance is too bewildering an issue to even begin analyzing, but it’s indicative of the film’s haphazard quality.
Though it’s hard to find fault with its message of tolerance, it delivers that message with such a jumbled voice, wedged between jokey, knowing narration and painful earnestness that it’s impossible for the story to harmlessly unravel. This finds it apotheosis in a scene where one bully, genuinely believing he’s been infected with cooties, mercilessly beats a nerdy girl with his jacket. For a movie so steeped in the world of children, That’s What I Am seems to have no idea what it’s like to be one.