As 2020 comes to a close, the inspirational sports drama “The Last Champion” seeks to highlight the power of community, love and forgiveness, the film’s stars say.
Starring “Yellowstone” actor Cole Hauser, “The Last Champion” follows John Wright (Hauser), a former championship wrestler and promising Olympian, who is forced to leave his hometown in disgrace after being stripped of his medal when it was discovered that he had cheated by using steroids.
But 20 years later, he returns to his hometown after his mother dies. There, he’s forced to face his demons and confront his past — including his ex-girlfriend and town residents who still hold grudges against him. Wright, however, gets a second chance by becoming the coach of a high school wrestling team.
While coaching the team, Wright encounters a troubled student, Michael Miller (Sean H. Scully), who also has the ability to become a champion. But, much like a younger Wright himself, Miller needs "someone to look up to,” helping the coach discover his purpose.
Wrestling is a key component of “The Last Champion.” In fact, it features Olympic gold medal wrestlers Dan Gable and Randy Lewis. But Hauser stressed that the film “is more than about wrestling.” The actor described “The Last Champion” as a “heartwarming movie” that will resonate with audiences of all backgrounds.
“It’s about humanity,” he said. “it’s about love, family, faith, addiction, redemption, being a teacher … someone’s growth from being a shattered soul to finding his way back and to teach a kid everything he wished he had learned.”
Though it's a family-friendly film, “The Last Champion” does include some language, violence, and several scenes with alcohol. It also examines the struggle of addiction, and the bleak reality of poverty and despair. According to Hauser, this gives Wright’s character, in particular, more depth and highlights the power of redemption.
“There's a lot of those key wonderful moments where you have family, friendship, love, but also the struggle to help someone through addiction,” he said.
“We get to see the redemptive side of this character when he is called to coach and ends up guiding a young athlete who reminds him of himself as a young man. He has the chance to teach these athletes what he applies to his own life, not by beating them up and tearing them down, but actually caring for them.”
“The Last Champion” is a family project: It’s directed, produced and co-written by actor Glenn Withrow ("The Outsiders"), his wife, Hallie Todd ("Lizzie McGuire"), and their daughter, Ivy Withrow (writer/producer).
Todd, who plays Miller’s hardened, emotionally abusive mother, noted that regardless of the audience, comeback stories are “relatable.”
“Watching others overcome the obstacles in their way, whether put there by outside forces or self-created, is truly inspiring. Seeing someone learn that it’s possible to reverse course and redirect their life can also be contagious and it can motivate others to do the same,” she said.
Withrow added that underdog and comeback stories are “universal.”
“Telling these types of stories are a way to engage with someone, to connect viewers to one another through a shared sense of humanity,” he said.
“The Last Champion” is not a faith-based film, but it does highlight the importance of faith, forgiveness, and community. The town's minister, Pastor Barnes, plays a prominent role in the film, and in one scene, town residents gather in a church to support Wright and Miller.
Despite its religious themes, Todd said that people of all faiths can watch “The Last Champion” “without feeling hammered by a preachy message.”
“Though our film is for any time of the year, the story passes through the holiday season and that factors into part of the narrative,” she said.
“This year, the holidays are going to look very different for everyone. For those who are alone, who have not had the best year because they’ve been sick or they’ve lost their job or someone they love, I think people can find some solace in the themes of this film. And even if they can’t be with their loved ones to celebrate, this is a film that friends and families can enjoy together or apart.”
At a time when “we are all physically separated from each other,” and “hope and inspiration feel a little hard to come by,” Withrow said he hopes the film can provide people with a “two-hour respite where they can find encouragement and know that soon we’ll be able to be a community again.”