One of the more touching scenes in Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music comes when Captain Von Trapp sings 'Edelweiss' on stage as Nazi soldiers grimly stare down from the theatre balcony waiting to arrest him.

Endel Nelis (played by Estonian actor Märt Avandi), the protagonist in The Fencer, finds himself in similar straits. Coming of age in Estonia, a small country just to the west of what was then the Soviet Union, Endel found himself drafted into the Nazi army at the age of 18. When the USSR regained control of Estonia in 1944, former German soldiers were arrested and shipped off to work camps in Siberia. While Endel wasn't a Nazi sympathizer himself, and in fact deserted, in 1952 (when the film takes place) he discovers there's a warrant out for his arrest -- so he escapes to Haapsula, Estonia, changing his last name, and poses as a physical education teacher, quickly giving suspicion to his true social class by starting a fencing club.

This isn't the first time Finnish director Klaus Härö has explored WWII themes. His 2005 film Mother of Mine illuminates another lesser known story: Finnish war orphans brought to Sweden for safety as Nazi troops were rumoured to bomb Helsinki. The Fencer once again unabashedly tugs at the heartstrings as Endel, a bit of an introvert who admits to a female colleague/love interest that he doesn't even like kids, surprises himself by becoming completely invested in giving these kids who have endured so much a new passion (and a much-needed distraction as the war has made many of the kids orphans as well). The secondary storyline of Endel evading the Soviet police makes this a much more complex narrative than expected. And it certainly increases the stakes.

While the plot is heavy and there are only glimpses of comic relief (headstrong 8-year-old Marta isn't afraid of giving an opponent 3x her size the stink eye), some levity comes through via the art direction. Haapsula isn't all moody and rainy as one might expect. A liberal use of long shots, both of the naturally lit school gym and exterior shots of the surrounding lakes and woods, add a certain visual reprieve, even if the plot never lets up. Endel certain could have found an uglier place for his quasi-exile.

The climax comes when Jaan, who lost his father in the war, finds a newspaper clipping advertising a fencing tournament in Leningrad. Endel knows going to Russia will put himself at enormous risk, but in a world of disappointments how can he deliver the kids one more?

Sounds like a tear jerker, right? While better than most films in the genre, The Fencer doesn't quite rise to the heft of a Dead Poet's Society. The truth is the film has the skeleton of a great story, but the execution falls short in just one or two areas. While Endel's evolving compassion for the kids reads well, Avandi's performance feels a bit too understated. You can recall a character like DiCaprio's Billy Costigan in The Departed and his anxiety just pulsates off the screen. A true sense of internal torment would go miles in balancing out the more sanguine moments of the plot. And speaking of plot, Anna Heinämaa's script feels a bit too transparently plotted. Halfway through the movie, Endel has the turning-point conversation with his fellow teacher, who encourages him to be just a bit more patient with the kids. And would you know it, in the very next scene, he's trying harder, and his dislike for kids has completely dissipated. There's not a lot of gradation: You can clearly see point a, point b, and point c. Nevertheless, the payoff is there, but you get the sense that with more dynamics in Avandi's performance and with more gradation in the script, the payoff could have been explosive.

Still, The Fencer remains an above-average inspiration tale with an appropriately timed U.S. release as kids get ready to return to classes. And it becomes all the more inspiring when reminded, as the closing titles make clear, that this is all based on a true story. Endel Nelis died in 1993, but the fencing club he started in Haapsula, Estonia remains to this day.