So far as I can tell, seeing Win Win truly would be a win win situation; the producers and studio execs will delight at the increase in box office, and you will be watching one of the year’s best films. This is a warm, funny, intelligent, compelling, superbly cast treasure – one of those rare films in which a brain and a heart are at work. Like last year’s brilliant The Kids Are All Right, it tells a story that isn’t idealized or overplayed. The more I watched, the more it became clear that the film was less a comedy and more a social portrait; anyone can write jokes or do pratfalls, but it takes something special to generate laughter from characters and situations that are uncannily authentic. It also takes something special to make us care about what’s going on and why, even as we laugh.
The film stars Paul Giamatti as Mike Flaherty, a New Jersey Elder Law attorney who moonlights as a high school wrestling coach. His team is on a losing streak, which is embarrassing since the school’s motto is “The Home of the Champions.” His business is failing, but he keeps this from his family. All he wants is for everyone to be happy, himself included. His client, Leo Poplar (Burt Young), is in the early stages of dementia, and although he has the financial means to live in his own home, he lacks a caretaker. The one who should be stepping up to the plate is his daughter, but it has been years since the two last spoke, and worse still, she’s currently nowhere to be found. Mike assumes the responsibility, although it has more to do with a paycheck than with saving Leo from a nursing home. Although there’s no malicious intent, the resulting arrangement shows a clear disregard for Leo’s wishes – and is an indicator of Mike’s dignity, or lack thereof.
Out of the blue enters Leo’s grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer), a scruffy teenage runaway from Ohio. His mom, as it turns out, is in rehab, and although doesn’t say much about it, it’s obvious he has no desire to go back home. This brings him to Mike’s house, where he will stay in the basement until something can be worked out. Mike’s wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan), is initially against the idea but immediately drops her defenses, and as the film progresses, she learns to love Kyle. But I’m making her sound like a cardboard movie mom. She is, in fact, one of the most realistic and likeable characters of any I’ve recently seen in a movie. She’s nosy, no-nonsense, and opinionated in matters of parenting, but she’s also protective and nurturing – a woman with natural maternal instincts.
When it’s discovered that Kyle was a champion wrestler back in Ohio, Mike successfully gets him onto the school wrestling team. Yes, he reverses the team’s losing streak, but that isn’t the point; unlike the typical sports movie, in which the game serves as a metaphor for overcoming adversity, Win Win treats wrestling simply as an outlet for Kyle’s anger, a way for him to feel in control of his own life. There are no training montages. There’s no climactic final match. Wrestling is an aside, and nothing more. This is good because it allows for a far less routine, far more satisfying climax, one that, as the title makes obvious, depends entirely on a win win scenario. This brings me to Kyle’s mom, Cindy (Melanie Lynskey), who appears quite suddenly and seems awfully interested in the money she could earn by being her father’s caretaker. For all we know, her hatred of Leo is justified. But her treatment of Kyle is unforgivable. No wonder Jackie was worried about losing control and punching her.
Alex Shaffer, who makes his feature film debut in Win Win, deserves an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Kyle, one of the most convincing teenage characters of recent memory. He nails the persona – the downbeat voice, the short and direct answers, the casual body language, the moodiness and frustration. In saying as little as possible, he ultimately speaks volumes. Nowhere is this more evident than in the film’s best scene, where Kyle accompanies Jackie on a trip to the supermarket; as they converse, we find ourselves aware of the words that aren’t actually being spoken. In its banality, it becomes one of the year’s most heartwarming moments.
Other characters add levity, and yet they never reduce the film to the level of pure silliness. One is Vigman (Jeffrey Tambor), the perpetually exasperated high school coach. The other is Mike’s best friend, Terry (Bobby Cannavale), who’s distraught over his recent divorce. When Kyle joins the wrestling team, Terry formulates his own win win scenario: By helping Mike coach the team, he can mentor Kyle while at the same time distract himself from his personal problems. This may be easier said than done; even though he too was a wrestler in high school, he was never any good at it. These small touches help to make Win Win such a wonderful movie – one of the most rewarding cinematic experiences I’ve had all year. If you miss this one, you’ll be doing yourself a monumental disservice.
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Fox Searchlight Pictures