Amer­i­can Wrestler: The Wizard

Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE -

From "Amer­i­can Beauty" to "The Last Amer­i­can Vir­gin," there have been so many Amer­i­can-moniker movies over the past few decades that we hardly stop to dwell on their ti­tles any longer. While it sounds like just another generic ad­di­tion to the list, "Amer­i­can Wrestler: The Wizard" is ac­tu­ally mak­ing a state­ment via its ti­tle: the tale of a teenage Ira­nian refugee who flees his op­pres­sive home­land only to find him­self fight­ing for re­spect in the United States, this feel-good high-school sports drama ac­tu­ally con­cerns an Ira­nian wrestler, not an Amer­i­can one, for whom vic­tory in the ring earned ac­cep­tance from his peers.

The wrestler's name is Al­i­dad Gara­has­naloo Ja­hani, though he prefers to be called "Ali" and quickly earns the nick­name "wizard" for the sheer speed with which he pins his op­po­nents-"faster than you can say his name," as one lo­cal sportspage re­porter puts it. His story, which was loosely in­spired by true events, de­rives from ac­tor-pro­ducer Ali Af­shar's own ex­pe­ri­ence grow­ing up in East Pe­taluma, Cal­i­for­nia, at a time when the lo­cals weren't any more friendly to­ward Mid­dle Eastern­ers than they are to­day.

Set in 1980, right around the Ira­nian hostage cri­sis de­picted in "Argo," the film re­minds of an ear­lier wave of head­line-driven xeno­pho­bic sen­ti­ment, of­fer­ing au­di­ences an eas­ily iden­ti­fi­able por­trait of at least one for­eigner who isn't so dif­fer­ent from them­selves. If any­thing, that's the trou­ble with this well-mean­ing movie: Apart from the open­ing se­quence, in which a sym­pa­thetic driver smug­gles a ner­vous Ali (Ge­orge Kos­turos) across the border, the teenager's story isn't so dif­fer­ent from ev­ery other mis­fit high school movie of the past 30-odds years, much less the wrestling sub-genre that in­cludes such films as "Win Win" and "The Ham­mer."

Lacks in orig­i­nal­ity

"The Ham­mer" is an es­pe­cially use­ful point of com­par­i­son, since that film deals with the (mostly) true story of deaf wrestling champ Matt Hamill, treat­ing the dis­abil­ity much as this one views Ali's clearly non-Amer­i­can sta­tus: as the defin­ing con­flict in a nar­ra­tive that will pre­dictably fol­low its hero dis­cover the sport, prove him­self to skep­ti­cal team­mates and coaches, and fi­nally win a ti­tle pre­vi­ously con­sid­ered to be out of the school's league. Along the way, we can ex­pect a bud­ding re­la­tion­ship with a young lady (in this case, Lia Marie John­son) who doesn't quite un­der­stand him and an emo­tional rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with a tough-love rel­a­tive (Af­shar plays Ali's un­cle, Hafez).

But whereas "The Ham­mer" added an in­trigu­ing wrin­kle-at his fa­ther's in­sis­tence, Hamill was raised with "nor­mal" kids and never learned sign lan­guage, giv­ing rise to an iden­tity cri­sis that leaves him feel­ing alien to both his old friends and new deaf class­mates-"Amer­i­can Wrestler" is mostly tired old for­mula. Still, what the movie lacks in orig­i­nal­ity it makes up for in per­son­al­ity, as Kos­turos brings the kind of rare alchemy to the role of Ali that makes all present feel as if they're watch­ing the birth of a movie star. Mean­while, di­rec­tor Alex Ra­nariv­elo (down­shift­ing from speed-driven racing movies to lower-in­ten­sity melo­drama, where the per­for­mances ac­tu­ally mat­ter) sur­rounds the promis­ing new­comer with solid char­ac­ter ac­tors, who bring di­men­sion to rel­a­tively hack­neyed roles-Wil­liam Ficht­ner as a be­liev­ably post-trau­matic Viet­nam-vet coach, and Jon Voight, lend­ing that im­mov­able sense of au­thor­ity to the his part as the school's slow-to-yield prin­ci­pal. Shot in ever-so-slightly un­sta­ble widescreen and fu­eled by the kind of yearn­ing teenage en­ergy that

in­vari­ably con­nects with au­di­ences of a cer­tain age, "Amer­i­can Wrestler" shows how this In­dian out­sider came to con­vince a skep­ti­cal com­mu­nity (one that seems a bit too much like the 1960s South of "Mis­sis­sippi Burn­ing," al­though more re­cent cases of race-re­lated bullying sug­gest the prob­lem never re­ally goes away) to ac­cept him as one of their own. As un­cle Hafez ad­vises, "This coun­try loves a win­ner. They don't care how you be­come one"-or put another way: If you can't join 'em, beat 'em. Cer­tainly that's as true in the wake of the elec­tion as the film's col­or­blind ide­al­ism is needed.

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