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Note: This is my review for Win Win from the Sundance Film Festival.
Win Win is an oddity. It’s a movie
about teenagers who are, gasp, intelligent, thoughtful,
polite, and better off than their adult counterparts. Teenagers are often
written as either social misfits, drugged out losers, or pigeonholed into some
clichéd clique. It’s always nice to see a movie that treats adolescents with
respect. Perhaps, I’m just tired of the same old formulaic high school drama
movies, or I still have the horrendous Twelve rattling
around in my brain from last year’s fest, but watching Win Win
gave me hope that filmmakers out there may continue to create
thought-provoking, poignant adolescent characters.
Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is a lawyer who’s struggling
to pay all his bills. He’s got his own practice, but the money isn’t exactly rolling
in. He’s got a few clients he sees, a boiler that needs fixing, and absolutely
no money to spare.
Mike’s client Leo Poplar is about to be declared incompetent
by the state and forcefully put in a state care facility. In an act of
desperation, Mike offers to become Leo’s guardian. Partly because he’s a good
guy, but also because Mike is able to pocket a $1,500 a month commission from
Leo’s estate if he takes care of him. Mike, thinking of his family and his law
practice, soon sticks Leo in an old folks home so they can take care of him and
he can keep the money without doing any of the work. It’s just one of those
deals that you know is going to come back and bite him.
When Mike heads over to Leo’s house to shut off the water he
finds a kid sitting on the front porch. His name is Kyle, and he’s played
brilliantly by newcomer Alex Shaffer. Shaffer is already a young master of what
a thoughtful, intelligent teenager should act like.
Sure, he’s got his problems, but Kyle is a deep-thinking,
considerate soul who knows a lot more than he’s letting on. He’s escaped his
druggie mother in Ohio and traveled to New Jersey to see his
grandpa Leo. Kyle soon builds a relationship with Mike and his wife Jackie (Amy
Ryan). Mike coaches the local high school wrestling team and they soon find out
that Kyle is basically a wrestling prodigy.
The true treat here really is Shaffer’s performance. Yes,
Giamatti is good as always, and Amy Ryan definitely has some great moments, but
Shaffer steals the show. He rips it out from under the big name stars like a
wrestler hooking his opponent’s ankle. He’s an enigma up on screen, talking in
a low dulcet tone. Even though he acts aloof like most teenagers, it’s easy to
tell that there’s a lot brewing just under the surface. He’s standoffish and
distant, but also infinitely likable.
I know that Giamatti’s name is up there big and bold on the
marquee. He’s the person drawing everyone to this movie, but Shaffer is the one
keeping them interested. It’s not that Giamatti is bad; it’s just that Shaffer
is that good. You know how it’s all going to end. Most of the movie is pretty
predictable, but Alex Shaffer – like Jennifer Lawrence of last year’s festival
– has arrived, and you won’t want to miss it.