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'American Underdog' review: A little faith, football and family makes an uplifting holiday film

American Underdog
Anna Paquin and Zachary Levi in "American Underdog." |

LOS ANGELES — The story of NFL legend Kurt Warner — how he went from stocking shelves at a grocery store to Super Bowl MVP — is well known in the sports community. Now, his remarkable journey hits the big screen in the tender and heartfelt drama “American Underdog,” hitting theaters on Christmas Day. 

From Jon and Andrew Erwin — the team behind “I Can Only Imagine” and “Woodlawn” — “American Underdog” is based on Warner’s memoir All Things Possible: My Story of Faith, Football, and the First Miracle Season. It features a star-studded cast including Zachary Levi, Anna Paquin, Dennis Quaid, Bruce McGill and a particularly endearing Hayden Zaller.

It’s a story of perseverance, resilience and hope; one that will leave audiences uplifted and encouraged, particularly after yet another year largely defined by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The film opens in the mid-'90s, when Kurt (Zachary Levi), the product of a small town and a single mother, is determined to play in the NFL despite the misgivings of his friends and family. However, his dreams are continually dashed, as he remains undrafted by a number of teams. 

He’s forced to take a job stocking shelves at a grocery store in Cedar Falls simply to make ends meet. While shelving Wheaties, he stares at the cereal box, imagining his own face on the cardboard square. 

Meanwhile, Kurt meets an intriguing former Marine, Brenda. He’s instantly smitten, but Brenda, outspoken and independent, is hesitant to date; she’s been divorced and is a single mother to two children. Zach, her younger son, is visually impaired. 

But Kurt soon wins Brenda over, and it's with her encouragement that he perseveres in his football dream. He goes on to enter the Arena Football League at the behest of founder Bruce McGill. Not long after, he’s approached by reps for the St. Louis Rams. The team’s leadership is initially skeptical, put off by Kurt’s relative old age and speed (“he’s as slow as molasses!”).

Proving naysayers wrong, the 27-year-old rookie would go on to be the league’s two-time MVP and MVP of Super Bowl XXXIV. Kurt’s first appearance at the Super Bowl in January 2000 is one of the film’s most powerful moments. 

But “American Underdog” is more than a football tale; it’s also Kurt and Brenda’s unlikely love story and their family’s journey to wholeness. Viewers watch the duo meet at a line-dancing bar and persevere in their relationship despite overwhelming obstacles, from distance to poverty. 

“Kurt’s story wouldn’t be possible without Brenda,” filmmaker Andy Erwin told this reporter. 

Relationships are at the center of “American Underdog” — some of the film's most powerful moments are the interactions between Kurt and Zach, beautifully played by Hayden Zaller.

The Erwins are best-known for their penchant for true stories and faith-heavy films. But “American Underdog” isn’t explicitly faith-based, nor does it overtly proselytize. 

As Levi told CP, “We didn’t want to make a ‘faith-based film,’ per se. We wanted an authentic story, and because of who Kurt and Brenda are, there are inevitably faith elements in it.”

Still, it’s clear that Brenda is a woman of faith, and it’s her faith that bolsters Kurt’s and allows the couple to persevere in the face of devastating circumstances. 

The film is rated PG for some language (including some misuses of God’s name) and some thematic elements — and it doesn’t gloss over the challenges Kurt and Brenda faced, both big and small. In one scene, the family runs out of gas in the middle of a blizzard, with a sick child in the back seat. Brenda tragically loses her parents in a tornado. Kurt becomes preoccupied with success, leaving Brenda feeling unseen. 

Releasing Christmas Day, “American Underdog” is the perfect holiday movie, one families can enjoy together. But “American Underdog” is more than a feel-good movie; it’s the rare kind of film that gently, without being too heavy-handed, reminds audiences of the power of faith, family and perseverance. 

As filmmaker Jon Erwin told this reporter, “We wanted to tell a story that people could see themselves in and people could see that, you don’t have to be perfect for God to use you. Those flaws are part of it, and that’s who God chooses to use.”

Leah M. Klett is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at: leah.klett@christianpost.com

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