The Erwin Brothers are known for the faith-based films. The huge hit, 2018’s I Can Only Imagine was based on the life story of Bart Millard, lead singer of the Christian band, MercyMe and how he learned how to forgive his abusive father. Andrew and Jon were poised for another hit movie with 2020’s I Still Believe. It’s an excellent story of healing based on the life of Christian singer Jeremy Camp who lost his young wife early on in their marriage. Unfortunately, right after that film came to theaters, many began to close down due to COVID-19 concerns. Almost two years later, the brothers hope to capture peoples’ attentions once again with the release of American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story.
Based on Warner’s life story and his own words from his own book, All Things Possible, American Underdog comes out on Christmas offering a feel-good sports movie with an excellent cast that will probably appeal to a larger audience, including those who don’t attend church. Perhaps not wanting to preach to only the choir, this faith-based tale is the least overtly “religious” of all of the duo’s works. Even so, this story shares a story of hope, redemption and the fulfilling of dreams of an unlikely hero.
The movie stars Zachary Levi as Warner who wants nothing more than to be a NFL champion. Like just about every other young football player, he has a lifelong dream of joining an NFL team. It’s a lofty goal and throughout much of the film, it doesn’t seem very likely.
It’s hardly a spoiler alert that he eventually achieves this dream, but not after a series of difficult obstacles, setbacks and in the case of Brenda Meoni, a distraction. Kurt (Zachary Levi) meets Brenda (Anna Paquin) at a bar that only plays country music, which is enough for Kurt to pass on the entire evening. But he is pretty taken with the blond beauty and before you know it, he becomes pretty adept at line dancing. But if Kurt isn’t smitten enough by Brenda, her son, Zack (Hayden Zaller) seals the deal. The boy, now blind because of the actions of a previous accident, takes an immediate liking to Kurt as well. And Brenda’s parents welcome Kurt as well presenting a more stable family environment than he’s used to.
Known mostly for his comedy work, Levi proves that he can do dramatic work too and Paquin is spot-on in her characterization of Brenda. The two come across as a very believable and likeable couple. Dennis Quaid stars in the film as well as Coach Dick Vermeil, but don’t expect to see much of him until much later in the film. The determination of Warner to follow his dreams, no matter what it takes, is truly inspiring. When others told him no, he looked for other ways. And when he needed to provide for his family, he did so even when that meant that he would have to work for minimum wage at a small grocery store. A true man does what he has to do.
While American Underdog resembles many other sports films, it doesn’t resemble your typical faith-based one. There’s no sex or violence, but there is some foul language. Not enough to be offensive, but still a little surprising. For some, this story will come across as more believable than other faith-based films since the main characters are not shown as perfect people who live in perfect homes, have perfect children and have everything all figured out. When Kurt meets Brenda, he learns that she’s been divorced, and she has a hard time trusting people. As a couple, they have their own flaws as they struggle with everything from finances to faith.
Even though it’s Brenda who helps Kurt understand what it means to have a “relationship with Jesus”, this couple seem to keep Him at arm’s length throughout most of the movie. According to the directors, the term “faith-based” has a broader meaning with this film than most of us are used to when it comes to this genre of movies. It isn’t just about one’s faith in God, but it’s also about one’s faith with their family and hope for the future.
For what it’s worth, that’s a good perspective. Unfortunately, unlike the Erwin’s other films, we don’t really get to see much of a transformation in Kurt’s life because of his newfound faith in God. We never seen him attend church or even say grace at the dinner table. Early on in the movie, Kurt wonders why God would give him a dream of becoming a football star if it wasn’t meant to be. Although understandable, considering what Brenda has gone through at this point in her life, those comments come across a little insensitive (but I don’t think it was meant to).
Knowing that the real-life testimony of Kurt Warner is making a difference in the lives of other today, I find it odd that isn’t shown here until much later in the film. Then again, we’ve all seen faith-based films that have been made poorly that make Christians look unbelievable or phony. In that sense, this choice in storytelling seems more realistic than other film. It is my understanding that Kurt didn’t really express much of this Christian faith until after the events featured in this movie and it is my hope that many theatergoers will explore Warner’s personal story further.
I write about pop culture, arts and entertainment in the greater Seattle area.