Grade:  B+
Entire family:  No (junior high or older)
Sports comedy
2018, 103 min., Color
Indie Pix Unlimited
Not rated (would be PG for language and very brief comic nudity)
Aspect ratio:  2.40:1
Featured audio:  Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Bonus features:  none
Trailer
Amazon link

Here’s a film not on your radar that would be a great choice for family movie night if you have children who are junior high age and older—especially if they’re into competitive sports. And don’t be fooled by the DVD cover, which looks like it was designed by the same people that do your local TV commercials. The Merger isn’t an amateur pretending to be professional. It’s a sure-footed, quirky, funny, warmhearted Australian Hoosiers.

Like Hoosiers, the plot revolves around an outcast in a small, small town where there’s a single sports obsession, and that outcast is expected to turn the local sports program around. Not everyone approves, there’s one player who doesn’t like the way he’s doing things, a local woman is drawn to him, he becomes close to a boy, and the players he’s assembled don’t particularly like each other. But they learn, under his tutelage, to work together toward a common goal: winning.

As with all sports films there’s a predictable arc from recruiting to practicing to losing to winning, with a big championship game the final scene. But after that, The Merger is as atypical as can be because it considers one of the biggest issues of our time: attitudes toward immigrants and diversity. The film jogs along at just the right pace for non-Australians to decipher their version of the Queen’s English and not miss many of the jokes that help to sell the message.

In fact, given the quirky characters, the frequency of jokes, and Australian swearing (which seems equally funny), The Merger probably has more of a kinship with sports films like Major League and A League of Their Own. Yet, here too there’s a big difference. The baseball scenes are as familiar to Americans as the basketball scenes in Hoosiers. But how many films about Australian rules football have you seen? It’s fun watching how play unfolds in a game that might seem like a mystery to viewers. There’s no forward pass, everyone seems to be able to kick the ball, and there’s lots of tipping and batting the ball to each other and running while dodging tackles. And the scoring? To Americans it can seem as indecipherable as cricket scoring. But it is fun to watch.

Based on a one-man show by comedian Damian Callinan, The Merger was filmed in the New South Wales city of Wagga Wagga (Pop. 56,000), which looks much smaller onscreen until the final big game scene shot at a larger stadium. And it’s riddled with funny scenes and dialogue, many of them laugh-out-loud. Still, all of those jokes would hang like cheap suits on the characters if the acting was subpar, and thankfully this Mark Grentell film is well acted.

Callinan, who also wrote the screenplay, is surprisingly understated as Troy Carrington, a former Australian Football League star whose career ended with a grisly multiple fracture in one leg. Now he’s a low-key environmental activist whose activism has caused his hometown to shrink on the vine, and the people resent him for it, calling him “Town Killer.” He strikes just the right tone of self-deprecating humor and deadpan quirkiness (he makes his own very bad export wine at his parents’ old house, stomping grapes himself in an old cast-iron bathtub in his front yard). He’s instantly likable, and Neil (Rafferty Grierson)—the kid who wears a Roosters costume (the mascot of the local “footy” team) and keeps trying to film a documentary about the “dickhead” that used to be a footy star—is nowhere near as annoying as child actors too often tend to be. In fact, all of the actors in this film come across as both believable and quirky.

The sports plot gets complicated because the boy hasn’t been the same since his father died, and Grandpa “Bull” gets even angrier about Carrington coaching his old team when he begins to sense that Troy is worming his way (albeit unintentionally) into the hearts of his grandson and widowed daughter-in-law Angie (Kate Mulvany).

The Merger is the kind of film where I could spill the entire plot and you’d still enjoy it because of the performances and the Australian rules football and the humor and the strong pro-immigrant and pro-refugee message. The kids can get 20 lessons in diversity at school and still not get as full of an emotional feel for it as they would by watching this film. This is a gem of an indie pic, one that merits repeat play. The only caveat is that it takes some getting used to in order to understand all that’s being said, with the thick Australian accents and the Australian habit of using abbreviations for words, like “refo” for “refugee,” “footy” for “football,” etc. You’ll miss a few things in the early going, but you eventually develop an ear for it and can sit back and enjoy.

The Merger is, like The Sandlot, obviously intended as a film that the whole family could watch, if you’re okay with the language that would be PG if the film were rated. But understand that this is an adult team, not a little league team that’s the focus of the film.

Language: “Dickhead” and “shit” stand out the most, with “bugger” not even registering as a swearword by many Americans

Sex: Nothing at all, unless you count an old man’s buttocks briefly peering through the back of a hospital gown

Violence: Some rough tackles, but it’s the stories of violence that have plagued some of the immigrants that hit home

Adult situations: Some drinking and drinking chants, with a scene where one player tries to insist a Muslim take a drink

Takeaway: Reviewers kiss a lot of toads to find that prince of a movie, but when you find something like The Merger it all feels worth it