'American Wrestler: The Wizard': Film Review
A teen fleeing the Iranian revolution finds his niche as a high school wrestler in Alex Ranarivelo's underdog tale.
A teen refugee from Iran finds that athletic-based school pride can (eventually) trump prejudice in American Wrestler: The Wizard, a cumbersomely named coming-of-age pic by Alex Ranarivelo. Based on the experiences of producer Ali Afshar, who here plays the uncle who helped young Ali adjust to American life, the film adds Reagan-era Islamophobia to a wholly conventional sports film; though it's only a middling example of its genre, these themes may help the movie win over some viewers who are especially sensitive to the treatment of immigrants in the age of Trump.
Young Ali (George Kosturos) is a hustler in his efforts to fit in after arriving at his new Petaluma, Calif., school in 1980: He makes embarrassing attempts to join the football and basketball teams; he offers free tutoring to a cute classmate (Lia Marie Johnson) despite clearly being unwelcome in her mother's restaurant. But when he finds the sad-sack wrestling team run by Coach Plyler (William Fichtner), persistence pays: After being dismissed out of hand, he notes that school rules guarantee him a tryout, then proceeds to give the biggest guy on the team a run for his money.
Ali's uncle, who says "Iranians used to have it great here," acts as if the boy were responsible for the political unrest that has soured Americans on Iran. He's about to kick him out when he learns that Ali made the wrestling team — whereupon he drops everything to teach him the "sport of the ancients."
The film has set up several conflicts with heart-tugging potential, but it neuters many of them in a quick sequence tracking Ali's sudden stardom on the wrestling mat. One moment, he's a benchwarmer; a montage later, the teammates who insulted him are chipping in to buy him a letterman's jacket. The sequence also eliminates the possibility of a Dennis Hopper-in-Hoosiers redemption arc for Fichtner's washed-up Vietnam Vet character: Somewhere in that montage, he declares "I have something to fight for," and that's that. And when the movie does have a long-arc story to tell — a mildly Karate Kid-like rivalry with an arrogant wrestler from another school — it fails to establish the villain well enough to generate heat in the climactic bout.
Honest performances from Fichtner, Jon Voight as the school's principal, and others make the picture watchable, but can't make up for lackluster storytelling. For a two-hour sports saga, a surprising number of relationships and conflicts go underexploited.
Production company: ESX Entertainment
Cast: George Kosturos, Ali Afshar, Lia Marie Johnson, Gabriel Basso, Kevin G. Schmidt, William Fichtner, Jon Voight
Director: Alex Ranarivelo
Screenwriter: Brian Rudnick
Producers: Ali Afshar, Hadeel Reda
Executive producer: Forrest Lucas
Director of photography: Reuben Steinberg
Production designer: Rob Riutta
Costume designer: Cami Nemanich
Editor: Brett Hedlund
Composer: Jamie Christopherson
Casting director: Brittani Smith
Rated PG-13, 116 minutes