A touching indie comedic yarn woven through with teen angst, the ennui of adulthood, and what it means to be a family, “Win Win” lives up to its namesake as a multi-faceted gem and the antithesis to the year’s big-budget comedy offerings.
Disheartened attorney Mike Flaherty (Giamatti), who moonlights as a high school wrestling coach, stumbles across a star athlete through some questionable business dealings while trying to support his family. Just as it looks like he will get a double payday, the boy’s mother shows up fresh from rehab and flat broke, threatening to derail everything. (Synopsis by Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Simply, “Win Win” is a honest portrayal of the American suburban family. Giamatti shines playing a quietly understated comedic straight man, while his eccentric friends, Terry and Stephen (Bobby Cannavale and Jeffrey Tambor) work the comedy angle. Perhaps more impressive is newcomer Alex Shaffer, who plays star wrestler Kyle with exactly zero previous experience except as a promising wrestler—an athletic talent cut short with a broken back.
The experience of writer/director Thomas McCarthy shows in getting Shaffer to give a solid performance while limiting his need to perform as an actor. One can imagine that McCarthy simply told him to “be a teenager” and let the film roll. The few scenes that require more serious acting are somewhat rough, but do little to detract from the overall flow of the film.
In this vein, the return of Kyle’s mother in the final act of the film plays out exactly as one would expect in reality. After nearly destroying the relationships built to that point, tensions boil over and Kyle is left to choose between running away or staying with the Flaherty family. The reconciliation is handled with relative silence of begrudging teenage anger at the breakfast table, instead of trying to have extensive dialogue bringing the characters back together. Ask yourself, which is more real?
The difficulty in finding a place in the mainstream for film like this is adjusting the indie-art portrayal of the characters into something that most people will relate to based on their film experience. Most non-traditional films never quite reach that goal, and can alienate moviegoers with the desire to differentiate their film from Hollywood. Quite the contrary, “Win Win” is perhaps one of the better “Intro to Indie” films available.
Playing both sides of the comedy/drama fence, there are a few scenes that are laugh-out-loud funny, but most of the comedy is understated, though yet smile-worthy. The drama never gets very deep, but is poignant in the imperfection of every character on screen. Being able to relate to these imperfections is the core strength of the film and will hook you early on.
Like many indie films, “Win Win” is hard to put this in a neat little package. The simple story is carried by the veteran acting talent and is handled with a sensitivity that will be poignant to the audience. In a year of “Hall Pass” and “Hangover 2,” don’t let this one fly under your radar.
“See It/ Rent It/ Skip It”: See it. Then go check out some other great indie films—like those detailed on Tito’s Netflix Queue for example. Shameless plug? Yes!
THREE STARS out of four.
Directed by Thomas McCarthy. Written by Thomas McCarthy (screenplay and story) and Joe Tiboni (story).
Rated R for language.
Runtime: 1 hour, 46 min