Wolves focuses on Anthony Keller (newcomer Taylor John Smith), a NYC high school basketball star in his senior year who hopes for a scholarship to play for Cornell University. He’s got a sweet girlfriend (Zazie Beetz), good friends, and an apparently happy home life. But, as with most films that start out with things looking good for our hero, there’s a dark underbelly to Wolves.
Anthony’s dad Lee (Michael Shannon) grapples with a gambling addiction and a seething resentment of his son, while Anthony’s mother (Carla Gugino) tries desperately to keep things together for her family. As the school year – and the basketball season – progresses, Anthony has to deal with the complications of life at home, at school, and on the court, none of which prove easy.
To call Wolves predictable does a disservice to the film, yet it’s a very recognizable story in many ways. The tough, bright, deserving kid faces adversity – some of it of his own making – and tries to come through it intact, helped and hindered by the adults around him…yes, we’ve seen that before. But while Wolves does depend on cliché, it also occasionally manages to transcend it.
The sports scenes are visceral, personal moments, the intensity of the games as palpable as fistfights and just as nerve-wracking. Although things may come down to the final shot, the last second of the quarter, the unlikely hero, Wolves keeps the scenes taut and fast-paced without sacrificing character.
The most interesting sequences occur as Anthony moves outside of the safety of his private school, where he’s worshipped as a star, and into the rougher basketball courts on West 4th Street, where no one knows his name. Again, the clichés abound when Anthony meets a former basketball star (John Douglas Thompson), who pushes him to up his game. Yet the predictable elements of a wise older man teaching a young boy the ways of the sport fall by the wayside – this is about Anthony coming to terms with the person that he wants to be, and navigating the increasingly hostile adult world around him independent of others, not about adults teaching children how to be functional.
These elements carry through into the interplay of emotions within the family unit. Anthony and Lee share a relationship that combines affection with resentment; their scenes together are loving until a sudden shock of violence or anger breaks them apart.
Michael Shannon channels a troubled intensity as Lee, a man both proud of his son’s accomplishments and almost desperate to sabotage them. While this could have played out as a clichéd parental response to a child’s success, Shannon’s performance hints at more complex and less clear motivations. Carla Gugino likewise makes the somewhat thankless role of the resilient and loving mother into a portrait of slowly breaking restraint as she tries to protect her son, and understand her husband.
Taylor John Smith, meanwhile, holds his own between the pair – no mean feat for a young actor. Again, it is to the film’s credit that he doesn’t become a cliché. Anthony is not an easy or clear-cut figure; he rings true as a boy in high school, hoping for success, fearing failure, and uncertain about how to navigate the adult world. He also exudes a confidence of a sort, but it’s the confidence of a young man who has always been successful and now faces the possibility that he might not be.
As good as the stars are, Wolves suffers a little from a lack of focus. Several interludes seem introduced only to provide more drama, rather than as integral parts of the narrative. Furthermore, some of the twists are predictable – it’s almost unbelievable that so very much could happen in one basketball star’s senior year. It’s unfortunate that Wolves so often falls back on cliché to make its thematic points – much more might have been done with the same story and cast.
Wolves does succeed in producing a palpable sense of the uncertainty for a young man just stepping out into the world. It doesn’t give easy answers, either to Anthony or to the viewer. While we can cheer for Anthony’s success and bemoan his failures, the film succeeds in complicating the audience reaction, putting us more in the position of Anthony than anyone else. It’s not always clear how we’re supposed to feel or what the best possible outcome would actually be – and that’s about as accurate a representation of growing up that I’ve seen on film in quite some time.
Buoyed by a strong cast, Wolves is a predictable yet powerful film that uses its multitude of sports movie and coming-of-age cliches to the best possible effect.