Grade: B+
Entire family: No (subtitles to read)
2015, 99 min., Color
Drama
Music Box Films
Not rated (would be PG for adult themes)
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Estonian 5.1 Dolby Digital w/English subtitles
Bonus features: C+
Trailer
Amazon link

If the children in the household are 10 and older (or good readers), The Fencer is a really nice change-of-pace film for family movie night. This Finnish-Estonian film with subtitles is a high-stakes Hoosiers with foils instead of basketballs, set in Soviet-occupied Estonia in the early 1950s.

Like Hoosiers, it’s the story of a coach with a secret who comes to a small school in a small town and tries to make a difference. With the coach in that Indiana roundball saga, audiences gradually learn about his past; in this film, subtitles in the first sequence explain the man’s dilemma: Estonia was first occupied by the Nazis and all the young Estonian men were drafted into the German army; then the Soviets occupied Estonia and the Russian Secret Police hunted down all of those young “traitors” who had served in the German army, executing them or sending them to work camps in Siberia.

So it’s not just a haunted past that follows fencing champion Endel Nelis (Märt Avandi), who, after the Secret Police become alerted to his identity, is advised by his coach to leave Leningrad and go far far away. Despite the threat of death or banishment, he seeks a normal life in the small Estonian town of Haapsalu, where most of the children are fatherless because of the war and feeling that no one cares about them or their town.

Enter Nelis, who begins teaching at the school and tries to start a ski club. But all the skis that he painstakingly repairs and waxes are “shared” with the nearby Soviet military base. How can I start a ski club on Saturdays if we have no equipment, he asks, and when the school’s “Comrade Principal” shrugs, circumstances lead him back to what he knows best: fencing, which the principal (in his Soviet survivalist mode) has deemed a sport not suitable for “the proletariat.”

As in Hoosiers, the coach persists, instructing his young charges not only in the fine points of the sport but in life as well. And as in Hoosiers there emerges a love interest with another teacher (in this case, Ursula Ratasepp as Kadri). There’s also an involved parent, or rather, grandparent (Egert Kadastu as Toomas) who helps the coach get his fencing team going, students who propels him (Liisa Koppel as Marta and Joonas Koff as Jaan), and a defining moment where parents determine his fate in a special meeting.

The Fencer is a little more brooding than Hoosiers, though that’s understandable given the higher stakes. But it’s equally atmospheric, shot in a way that reinforces the story’s intimacy. It’s also every bit as compelling and uplifting, providing another view of the Cold War that too many American youngsters only know through James Bond movies. This is what daily life in an occupied country looks like, the story of how, with a little help from his coach (Kirill Käro), one man can make a difference no matter how the odds are stacked against him.

Fans of Hoosiers will flash back to the scene in Indianapolis where the small-town team is dazzled and overwhelmed by the size of the arena—until the coach takes out a measuring tape and points out to them that it’s exactly the same as their gym back home.

The Fencer is also a classic David and Goliath story, and one that sticks with you. Though it doesn’t have the slickly dramatic Hollywood arc of Hoosiers, it’s still a film that moves you and is well worth your family’s time.

And unlike Hoosiers, it’s based on a true story.

Language: Only a few of the mildest swearwords
Sex: A couple kisses, but in the tradition of older movies that suggested rather than depicted sex, a foil dropping to the ground signifies that the couple probably came together
Violence: Nothing here aside from the actual fencing, which is a controlled sport
Adult situations: Several men are taken away by the Secret Police and there are sad goodbyes surrounding both
Takeaway:  Films like this expand a person’s world, and yet there are familiar things to make that world feel just as small

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