Win Win is an indie drama from Thomas McCarthy whose third film proves he knows how to write genuine human behavior. Although there are some similarities between his other films, Win Win should appeal to a wider audience with this simple but sweet film about family.
Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is a high school wrestling coach for a losing team. He is a lawyer with his own practice but work is slow. He is so stressed out because of the lack of work he sometimes collapses while jogging. Needless to say, things are not looking up for him.
Looking to seize an opportunity at work he becomes a legal guardian for one of his clients named Leo (Burt Young), who has dementia in order to gain some extra income. While looking after Leo’s house, Mike finds Leo’s 16 year old grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer), who randomly shows up at the home. He has never met his grandfather before but since he no longer gets along with his mother he had no choice but to flee.
Turns out that Kyle’s mother Cindy (Melanie Lynskey) is in drug rehab and never really provided a stable household for Kyle to live in. That might explain why Kyle is a foul mouthed chain-smoker at the age of 16. Although Kyle may seem like a punk on the outside, deep down he is a gentle soul.
Kyle comes to wrestling practice with Mike and asks if he could join. Mike asks him if he has ever wrestled before and Kyle causally says, “Yeah.” It turns out Kyle is fantastic at wrestling and is easily the best one on the team. Mike knows that Kyle is just what the team needs in order to turn their losing season around.
At his first match on the team, Kyle dominates his opponent with ease. His teammates are thankful to have the newcomer bring such success to the team. Kyle also bonds quickly with Mike’s family and soon becomes part of it. Even Mike’s wife, who was a little reluctant with the idea of Kyle at first, now thinks of Kyle as her own son.
With each match the team seems to be getting better and better now that they have Kyle. For the first time in a long time, things are looking up for Mike. Extra income from Leo and Kyle is vastly improving the wresting team’s record. Kyle is very happy to be wrestling again and has even quit smoking. Everything is swell until Kyle’s mother Cindy comes for him.
Cindy claims she came back to take care of Leo but made it obvious she just came back for his money. When she threatens to take Mike to court over it he comes up with a deal, saying he will take care of Leo for free and send her the monthly commission as long as she leaves Kyle alone. But Cindy now wants her son too, even if it is against his will.
Paul Giamatti is fantastic as always, playing the likeable but slightly flawed character of Mike, a family man who seizes opportunities when they arise. Amy Ryan is not on the screen as much as I would have liked, playing the role of a mother not at all like the one in Gone Baby Gone. This time she is a loving mother that thinks the world of her family and does it very convincingly.
Alex Shaffer was very natural playing the role of Kyle but after doing some research it is easy to understand why. At the age 17 Alex Shaffer won the New Jersey State Wrestling Championship in real life. He felt right at home when he shot for the legs and hop around the wrestling mat. There are only a couple of dialog scenes where you could tell he had never acted before.
Thomas McCarthy has used actor Bobby Cannavale in two of his films and in both he plays nearly the same character. The characters he plays are so socially desperate to be a part of someone else’s life because they are bored with their own. In The Station Agent that character was Joe, in Win Win it is Terry. Terry comes to Mike’s wrestling practice because he just wants to see this Kyle kid wrestle and perhaps trying to fill a void in his life from a recent divorce he had. He is excellent in both films providing comedic relief at the same time being the third wheel.
Win Win is the kind of film that will not blow you away, but is still enjoyable. It is well-acted and well told; even though the story is ultimately too safe which results in a warm family film that is worth watching once. However, compared to McCarthy’s The Station Agent this film was a bit of a let down.