Earlier this month, World Wrestling Entertainment announced that it was rebranding itself as WWE, in order to better reflect its forays into film, TV, a planned network, and eventual world domination. So while certain expectations may form when that jagged “W” logo flashes across the screen—expectations that the movie will perhaps feature a veteran of the ring hurling someone through a bus windshield, or being put in charge of a group of children with hilarious but ultimately heartwarming results—That’s What I Am is indubitably a product of the new, expanded WWE. It’s a dogged family entertainment determined to teach lessons about tolerance and how it should be extended to everyone, even redheads, gay people, and kids with cooties. Though (spoiler alert!) no actual gay characters are featured in the movie. It hardly includes any wrestlers, either. Randy Orton only appears in a few scenes, and while he’s the closest the film comes to having a villain, his dastardly ways are confined to registering a complaint with a school principal; he doesn’t offer a single display of his signature Randy Orton Stomp.
Set in 1965, That’s What I Am follows Chase Ellison through a year in middle school, as he pairs up on a school project with class outcast Alexander Walters, witnesses the unjust pillorying of his favorite teacher (Ed Harris), and gets his first kiss. With its nostalgia-infused voiceover narration, That’s What I Am seems to be aiming for To Kill A Mockingbird by way of The Sandlot, but its story threads never entirely meet up or reach any kind of apogee. Ellison learns that while Walters is tall, has red hair, and likes to read books, he isn’t a disgusting, horrible freak of nature. Meanwhile, Harris gets pushed out of his job for refusing to respond to accusations of homosexuality leveled at him by a student retaliating for an earlier punishment. A placard preceding the film’s title card assures that it’s “inspired by true events,” but the note is unnecessary, given the limpness of the narrative arcs. Who would make up such an anticlimactic story? That’s What I Am cries out for a figurative finishing move.