“In this inspiring tale based on true events, 17-year-old Ali Jahani is a newcomer to a small California town, where he stands out as different in an unwelcoming community. Living with his embittered uncle, the boy faces a mountain of adversity everywhere he turns. Rejected by everyone but determined to fit in, he joins the school’s floundering wrestling team. With a chance to change how others see him, Ali must step up and learn to be a hero.” – Warner Bros. Home Entertainment
American Wrestler: The Wizard (maybe not the best name) is loosely based on the life of Ali Afshar. After his family fled Iran, he sought acceptance in his new country by joining his high school’s wrestling team. Afshar garnered the nickname “The Wizard” due to his speed in taking down opponents.
Afshar, the story’s lead inspiration, is represented by the character Ali Jahani, portrayed quite well by George Kosturos. Afshar, now an adult in real life, stars as Jahani’s uncle, Hafez Tabad. The movie runs 117 minutes and also stars William Fichtner, Lia Maria Johnson, Gabriel Basso, Sasha Feldman, Chase Mowen, Kevin G. Schmidt, and Jon Voight. It was written by Brian Rudnick and directed by Alex Ranarivelo.
The trailer above implies that American Wrestler: The Wizard is a heartwarming, inspirational story about a young Iranian boy finding a place in his new American high school by joining the wrestling team. While most of this is accurate, the movie is not as heartwarming as you’re led to believe. In fact, it’s rather depressing. While there are inspirational moments, they pale in comparison next to the amount of cruelty and tragedy we see in Ali’s life. The movie itself is more about social commentary than wrestling. You may walk away from this movie inspired to overcome challenges, but it’s doubtful you’ll walk away feeling particularly cheery or heart-warmed.
Before you think, “How can you say that? It’s a true story!” let me take a second to explain. The movie is “loosely” based on a real person’s story. A little bit of research reveals just how loose the plot actually is in following Afshar’s journey. Many details have been added or altered, so I don’t feel too bad for the following dissection of the story.
Real “Wizard” Ali Afshar’s story takes place in the early 90s, but the story has been changed to begin during 1980, in the middle of the Iran hostage crisis. When character Ali Jahani arrives in America, political tension at his new school is nearly overwhelming. And the movie doesn’t want you to forget that characters are in the early 80s. In case you do start to forget, there are pop 80s songs and two musical montages that involve athletic training. It was shot in 2015, but certainly has the 80’s feel.
Ali is a likeable character, which makes it easy to cheer for him. We learn that he is smart and can speak three languages. He starts the movie as a good wrestler – not a great one. Ali has to work hard and train to become excellent at wrestling. He receives coaching, often contradictory words of advice, from both his uncle and also the school’s wrestling coach (Fichtner).
While Ali earns the respect of Coach Plyler and his fellow teammates, he faces continual opposition from most of the rest of the school. He is constantly insulted and pushed by school bully, Mike (Mowen). He is booed by his classmates at wrestling matches. He is picked on for his different lunch foods. All the while, waiting in the wings is the wrestling star (Schmidt) of another school who is taking drastic measures to lose weight so he will be able to fight Ali.
For his part, Principal Skinner (Voight) is torn when it comes to Ali. He wants to see Ali succeed, but he is constantly aware of the political unrest the new student’s arrival has caused the other students. He warns Coach Plyler against pushing Ali to succeed too much.
A lot of this movie rides on the strength of its performers. Kosturos is excellent as Ali. He consistently plays the character as likeable and someone you want to root for to succeed. Fichtner’s performance as a war-damaged wrestling coach who genuinely has his students’ best interests in mind is also outstanding.
The movie really wants you to like Afshar’s Uncle Hafez, but he is simply not a likeable character. This is nothing against the strong performance Afshar provides in all his scenes. It’s the writing, unfortunately, that doesn’t help his character. Hafez has agreed to care for his sister’s son, but he is constantly mean to his nephew and is ready to give up and kick him out after just a few days. Only when he realizes that Ali shares his passion for wrestling does he reconsider and actually take an interest. At that point, the movie tries to start redeeming Hafez. He gets to say several inspirational lines about perseverance and never giving up, but these kind of fall apart when viewers remember that the character was ready to give up on caring for Ali after less than a week of trying. Too much time is spent trying to redeem Hafez instead of making him just a bit more likeable from the start.
Also working against the movie is its romantic storyline between Ali and Kristi (Johnson), the girl he is tutoring in French. Most of their scenes feel cliched and flat. While she is meant to show that not everyone immediately rejects Ali, Kristi’s storyline feels like typical high school drama that distracts from the main plot. While this is likely due primarily to writing, Johnson’s performance isn’t quite as strong as those of Kosturos, Afshar, and Fichtner.
Overall, this is a decent movie with an easy enough plot to follow, but the movie seems to waiver between two genres. It wants to be a sports movie, reminiscent of The Karate Kid and Rocky, but it also wants to spend a lot of its time offering social commentary. While this approach isn’t bad, it takes the movie away from its marketed “heartwarming” qualities and focuses instead on its depressing moments. From the movie’s outset to the credits – for every small victory Ali makes, he faces more opposition and sadness. If you are looking for an inspirational story, check out American Wrestler: The Wizard, but if you are seeking something heart-warming, this may not be the movie for you.
Special Features –
• Revisiting The Past
• Script to Screen
• Behind the Scenes
• Andy Madadian and Shani Rigsbee “Rise” Music Video
• American Wrestler: American Dream