From “American Beauty” to “The Last American Virgin,” there have been so many American-monikered 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 sports-page 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, Calif., 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 schooler movie of the past 30-odds years, much less the wrestling sub-genre that includes such films as “Win Win” and “The Hammer.”
“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 Iranian 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.