Saturday, May 21, 2011

Win Win



The movie has been out for two months now, but I saw Win Win only this weekend.  It's one of several recent movies featuring wrestling--last year's Blue Valentine and Salt gave the sport a passing nod--so it's been on my list forever.  I just hadn't got around to it.  Some inexplicably lukewarm-ish reviews by critics I usually agree with had cooled me on the film, so that's why I dragged my feet.  I liked director Thomas McCarthy's previous work--The Station Agent (2003) and, especially, The Visitor (2007).  I respect Paul Giamatti as an actor, even though his film choices are pretty hit and miss for my tastes.  I was getting worried that Win Win would be another sappy family-slash-sports drama like The Blind Side (I say "sappy," but truthfully Sandra Bullock jerked a few tears out of me in that one).  On the other hand, I had to tell myself, it is about wrestling--and you can't go too awfully wrong with Amy Ryan, Bobby Canavale, Jeffrey Tambor, and Margo Martindale in the cast.

The movie's a lot better than I even expected.  It's got a little warmth-and-fuzziness, sure, but mostly it's just real about issues like the role economics plays in our ethical choices--and the necessity of building community, in whatever ramshackle way we can manage it.  There's a fine cast, but the steely center of this movie is young bleach-blond Alex Shaffer.  This is his only movie so far, and it's a role he won largely because of his real-life background in amateur wrestling.  

Shaffer's character Kyle is a wounded boy who falls accidentally under the wing of public defender and part-time wrestling coach Giametti.  A young man of limited expressiveness--a victim of bad luck and worse parenting, yet somehow retaining a quiet dignity marked by unaffected politeness and firm values--Kyle reminds me of a lot of young men I teach at community college.  His character is a still, quiet center to the adult confusion that surrounds him, and ultimately it is he--the presumed delinquent--who gives the film its moral bearings.

In 2010 Shaffer won the New Jersey State Wrestling Championship (the shots below are not from the movie), but a spinal injury has now pushed him out of the sport, apparently for good.  The 18-year-old actor exudes a lot of charisma in a subtle performance that suggests more depth to the character he plays than the script ever spells out for us.  The wrestling scenes are convincing--and physically impressive--and his face holds a penetrating intensity that's both sexy and vulnerable.  He's the real reason to see Win Win.  It's rare to see an inexperienced actor bear the weight of a movie on his shoulders with such assuredness--but then he's working alongside some of the best American actors in the movie business.

Here's a small intelligent movie for audiences who don't require an endless succession of explosions and jokes about jerking off.  If you're the type who can enjoy a subdued, wryly humorous movie about working-class people--in 2-D and a virtual absence of saturated colors--then I recommend Win Win to you.  It's one of the few movies I've seen lately I can't wait to see again.

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