Win Win is the third film written and directed by Thomas McCarthy and it is, predictably, much in the vein of its predecessors. 2003’s The Station Agent was a quaint, rural-set study of oddball familial relationships that made a star of Peter Dinklage; 2007’s The Visitor was the same thing, but within an urban environment and with major political overtones. The latter made a name for star Richard Jenkins. Now it’s Win Win‘s teenage star Alex Shaffer’s turn who delivers a stellar performance in this heart-warming familial dramedy set amidst the world of high school wrestling.
Business is slow in suburban New Jersey where attorney/high school wrestling coach Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) struggles to support his wife (Amy Ryan) and their two young daughters. When elderly client Leo Poplar (Burt Young) is handed over to the state due to an early case of dementia, Mike seizes the opportunity to act as guardian and thus receive a monthly check from the government. Since honoring Leo’s wishes to remain in his home would be a lot of work, Mike sneakily admits him into an assisted living center. Then comes the timely arrivals of Leo’s grandson/wrestling star Kyle (Shaffer) and daughter/neglectful mother Cindy (Melanie Lynskey) whose appearances eventually (and predictably) reveal Mike’s temporary lapse in judgement.
Giamatti does his usual thing (in a good way) as he both coaches and cares for Kyle like a son. Real-life wrestler Shaffer delivers an understated performance as a teenager who is forced to struggle with the decisions of his peers. He delivers his lines in a polite monotone and adds an effective level of legitimacy to the wrestling scenes. The Station Agent’s Bobby Cannavale again portrays a loud-mouth friend of the protagonist with the same charm and humor as his previous outing with McCarthy. The great Jeffrey Tambor also has a supporting role as an assistant coach though he is ultimately given little to do.
The underused setting of high school wrestling should be applauded though it doesn’t necessarily serve as the best companion to the film’s conflicts. Win Win is about the family unit, both stable and shattered, and although conflicts within those units are often one-on-one, the film teaches us that we can only survive through these dreary modern times with support from our loved ones. Vision Quest never really entered that kind of territory.
Win Win opens today at the Ritz Five.