Win Win Review [SXSW 2011]

A thoughtful study of relationships and family dynamics, Win Win wrestles the competition to the ground. The Fox Searchlight indie drama surrounding a young wrestler and his harried coach screened at Austin’s SXSW Film Festival last week, and comes out in theatres March 18th.

Win Win is the touching tale of Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), a less-than-successful lawyer who is having money troubles. He’s also the high school wrestling coach of perhaps the worst team in the district. Mike finds himself in an ethical dilemma as he faces an opportunity to make an easy buck, but has to act questionably.

A senior citizen named Leo, who suffers from dementia, is about to be declared a ward of the state. Mike discovers that he can make some money if he declares himself Leo’s legal guardian under the promise of watching out for him and allowing him to live in his own home instead of a state home. Mike has a strategy, which doesn’t include letting Leo live in his own home. His plan seems to be working out perfectly until Leo’s grandson shows up.

This throws a major wrench in Mike’s plans, as no one even knew Leo had a grandson. Kyle Timmons (Alex Shaffer) seems to be a strange young man who hates his neglectful, absentee mother and happens to be a brilliant wrestler. Mike takes Kyle into his home as a quick fix, and when he finds out how Kyle channels his angst into awesome wrestling moves, he gets him enrolled in school and on the team. Things seem to be going better than planned, when Kyles mother shows up and everything spirals out of control.

Win Win succeeds where other indie dramas have failed. With a light, humorous tone, it deals with weighty issues that could bog down an inferior script. Sometimes indie dramas can come across as pretentious and downright boring, but Win Win’s subtle humor and feel-good ending make it a cut above the rest. The cinematography has a modest feel, like the story. The film is rife with visual metaphors. In an early scene, audiences see Mike jogging along a wooded path, and suddenly two faster, trimmer joggers pass him and leave him behind.

Mike’s family live in a small house with a dying tree in the yard, a tree that threatens to fall on his house, but that he can’t afford to get removed. His business is spluttering, much like the clanking boiler in the basement that just might explode at any moment. Yes, Mike’s world is about to go FUBAR. The metaphor in the filming and the story help give life to Mike’s motivations. They no longer seem contrived when he’s got so much on the line. His actions, however distasteful to audiences, are at least understandable.

Giamatti plays Mike with his usual finesse. I’m not sure he’s dislikeable as any character, however flawed the character might be. Giamatti reminds me of a huggable teddy bear, and even when he’s misbehaving I want to see him succeed. I think this quality of his works well for his character, who is at heart a good guy, but who makes some bad decisions out of desperation.

His relationship with the young Kyle is touching, as Kyle has had no real family support or structure growing up, and the Flahertys take him in as one of their own. Shaffer does a great job in his break-out role. He’s hardened, yet vulnerable. His mother is played by Melanie Lynskey. Though it’s a small role, Lynskey also shines as the selfish mother.

Mike’s friends and co-coaches provide plenty of comic relief. Arrested Development’s Jeffrey Tambor and Bobby Cannavale play the feuding friends, always there with bad advice. The elderly Leo is played Burt Young, which most of you will recognize as Rocky’s gruff brother-in-law in the Rocky movies. He’s another actor that is type-cast in the extreme. It was refreshing to see him as, if not quite gentle, at least a meeker character than he usually plays.

Director and co-writer Thomas McCarthy is probably more recognizable as an actor than the man behind the camera. He is also credited with co-writing the popular animated film Up. But in this, his third film as writer and director, I think he’s proved he has a deft touch.

Win Win Review [SXSW]

A thoughtful study of relationships and family dynamics, Win Win wrestles the competition to the ground.

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