“Win Win”: Early review from Sundance

I caught this film thanks to the Sundance Film Festival USA, a roadshow in which films from last week’s Sundance Film Festival tour the nation. They came to the Michigan Theater here in Ann Arbor, and I caught up with the producer, Mary Jane Skalski. “Win Win” is set to be released on March 18th.

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Paul Giamatti has the best eyes in Hollywood.

Walking out of my screening of “Win Win”, this was the first thing that came to mind. Both in this film and in Giamatti’s body of work in general, through little expressions and glances of resignation, he somehow conveys emotions that hit hard and resonate deeply. That’s why he’s one of my favorite working actors, and that’s why “Win Win” was such a pleasure to watch. Because in this movie, Giamatti starts off as a man, Mike, who is doing what he loves (moonlighting as a wrestling coach), but somehow feels a certain dissatisfaction. This movie is about him coming into his own and finding purpose.

It’s odd, how this happens. See, a troubled 16-year old, Kyle, lands on his doorstep with nowhere else to go. Mike and his family take him in, but are surprised to find that Kyle is a fantastic wrestler. Mike puts him on the team. What follows is a somewhat standard sports drama…think “Blind Side” without the mildly racist undertones.

Although, as I described earlier, Giamatti is no doubt the leading man in the cast, it’s a much more ensemble-based effort than I would have imagined. Amy Ryan give solid support as Giamatti’s wife, but it’s Jeffrey Tambor and Bobby Carnavale as Giamatti’s fellow wrestling-coaches that walk away with any scene they’re in. They provide much of the film’s humor, playing quirky yet still realistic, likable characters.

If there was a trip-up in casting, it was teenager Alex Schaffer. Schaffer plays Kyle, which is without a doubt one of the key roles in the film. I’ve heard that the crew were looking to cast a wrestler that could act, rather than an actor that could wrestle, and it definitely shows at points. Schaffer communicates feelings of angst and frustration effectively enough and is a likable kid, but it’s in the more emotional moments where Schaffer falters quite a bit.

Director Tom McCarthy’s script (oddly enough, written with his high-school wrestling partner Joe Tiboni) comes to life beautifully here. You don’t quite realize how well-done it is until you find yourself cheering, laughing or brooding within a 10-minute span, all done effortlessly. It’s a testament to how close you become with these people in the film.

“Win Win” is a movie with very modest ambitions. It aims not to provoke deep thought. Rather, all it really wants to do is stir your soul, and leave you feeling a bit more happy than before you stepped in. And thanks to the warm, interesting characters and good humor, it does exactly that. B+

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