Written & Directed by Thomas McCarthy
When life has you pinned, use the “whatever the f— it takes” move. That seems to be the driving philosophy of the characters in Win Win, a film about a struggling attorney (Paul Giamatti) who seems to dig himself even deeper into a hole when he decides to become the official guardian of one of his elderly clients, who has early onset dementia, in order to make a little extra money while his practice is struggling. The move is one coined by the elderly man’s grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer), who describes it as imagining your opponent trying to drown you in water and if you don’t get out of it, you will die. It seems an ominous thing for a 17 year old to say, but when it comes from a kid who has traveled all the way to New Jersey from Ohio to escape his druggie mother and her questionable boyfriend, it all starts to make sense.
So when Kyle shows up at the doorstep of Leo Poplar, the elderly client, attorney Mike and his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) have no option but to take him in until they can find his mother and decide what to do. Meanwhile, Kyle is enrolled in the local high school and starts to wrestle on the schools team, which is coached by Mike. A program that struggles to win a match, the New Providence Pioneers see a resurgence aided by the talents of Kyle, played by real life New Jersey State Champion Alex Shaffer. But soon his mother does show up, and throws a wrench in all the great things that seem to be happening for both Mike and Kyle.
The emotional weight of the film is carried by its two leads, Mike and Kyle. Mike, played succinctly by the very capable Paul Giamatti, is a loving father and husband and a decent lawyer. But in order to makes ends meet with his family, he makes the fateful decision of fooling Mr. Poplar into paying him to be his guardian. Kyle is a broken child from a broken home who sees a second chance of controlling his future when he is in the wrestling ring. Shaffer does surprisingly well for his first on screen role. But what truly completes the picture is the outstanding supporting cast, lead by Amy Ryan as Mike’s wife Jackie. Jeffrey Tambor and Bobby Cannavale provide the comedic relief, but what sets these characters up so well is the great detail with which writer-director Thomas McCarthy paints them. He takes the time to establish them as characters which really creates a fuller experience with the story.
Like any good indie film will do, Win Win mixes comedy with drama, with the focus being on the drama. In this case, the filmmakers deliver a fairly strong central message by allowing the characters on screen to be human. Mike and Kyle are two people who build a friendship through a serious of mistakes they have made. In the sense that they are both broken, their bond becomes a win-win scenario, as they learn a great deal from each other. Kyle teaches Mike to do “whatever the f— it takes”. And in return, Mike teaches Kyle that he is more talented, and more loved, than perhaps he ever knew before. While motivations can at times be questionable for Mike and Kyle, by the end of the film, it is clear they are doing everything for the right reasons.