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Win Win - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Win Win
Directing: A-
Acting: A-
Writing: A-
Cinematography: B
Editing: A-

Here's something you don't see every day: a kid wins the New Jersey state wrestling championship, then goes on to appear in a starring role in a motion picture -- as a kid wrestler. Evidently, Alex Shaffer is a dedicated wrestler but also has interests in acting; a tip-off from a friend regarding a casting call for a teenage wrestler led to a series of auditions that led to Win Win.

Shaffer, as Kyle, an only somewhat troubled but still very sweet kid, is not stupendous. But given this is his first -- and, so far, only -- film role, he's also impressively convincing, and seems to harbor a moderately precocious understanding of the nuances of emotions tied to his age. Now 18, he was 17 during filming, playing a 16-year-old. He gives a deadpan, almost monotone delivery, but always in a way that reflects just about every sullen teenager you've ever met.

Kyle meets local lawyer Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti, excellent as always) in a rather circuitous way. Flaherty, in a financial bind he does not want to admit to his wife (Amy Ryan), takes a self-serving approach to helping a client with early-onset dementia (Burt Young) stay at home. Flaherty offers to be Leo's guardian, and keep an eye on Leo at his house. But then, while taking the checks that come out of Leo's estate, he still dumps Leo in a home "temporarily" because, he feels, his life is too complicated. Clearly, Mike Flaherty is not a selfless man.

But much like his role in Barney's Version, Giamatti has a knack for making characters likeable even when they are making decisions that are disgusting at worst and ill-advised at best. Win Win, as its events unfold, reveals itself to be the kind of overtly heartwarming movie that somehow manages not to be gooey.

This is due in large part to its themes grounded in reality, and its characters who elicit empathy even when they can't get control of their lives. Kyle, you see, turns out to be Leo's grandson -- a kid Leo didn't even know existed because his daughter hasn't talked to him in a couple of decades. Kyle shows up at Leo's doorstep in New Jersey from Ohio (incidentally, Alex Shaffer is himself from New Jersey), just as Flaherty is trying to get the new situation settled. Naturally he wasn't counting on a monkey wrench in the form of a skinny teenager with bleached blond hair.

But Flaherty also volunteers as the wrestling coach for the local high school, and his team is terrible. Kyle, sticking around for a while because he doesn't want to be with his absent, drug-addict mother (Melanie Lynskey, playing a woman clearly messed up and yet difficult to hate), sits in on practice. Then asks to practice along. Then ends up enrolling in the school and joining the team, and, predictably, turning the team around.

But turning the team around isn't the point, and thus that predictability is, for once, irrelevant. Instead, the focus is on the relationship between Kyle and his new caretakers, and, ultimately, Mike Flaherty's deception. It's all about conflict and resolution, of course, but in the case of Win Win writer-director Thomas McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) offers up a story that is greater than the sum of its parts. Things do get a little too neatly wrapped up in the end, but so what? Even that really does happen sometimes, and in this case the result is a rather good feeling about what you just saw once the story ends.

Paul Giamatti and Alex Shaffer are looking for a 'Win Win' situation.

Overall: A-
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