Thomas McCarthy is the Anne Tyler of directors. He makes movies about surrogate families, unlikely bonds, and sad people finding solace—if not outright happiness—in each other’s company. Sure, maybe there is something a little contrived in his formula—he combines the low-key, naturalistic sensibilities of an indie director with the satisfying catharsis of mainstream film (Win Win could almost be described as a downbeat version of The Blind Side). But I’m buying what he’s selling. (And for the record, I like Anne Tyler, too.)
In Win Win, Paul Giamatti plays Mike, a lawyer with a seedy little practice that has an ominously banging heater in the basement, a toilet bowl that is constantly overflowing, and a jaded secretary who gripes about how little money they’re bringing in. He is married to the decent and pragmatic Jackie (Amy Ryan) and they have two little girls. Mike is also the coach of the dismally bad local high school wrestling team.
Mike is so stressed out about the lack of money coming in that he is getting panic attacks. So when he finds out that Leo (Burt Young), a client in the early stages of dementia, is rich, he petitions the court to be Leo’s guardian, thus assuring a monthly stipend of $1,500. But instead of keeping Leo in his home, as he promises the court, Mike drops him off in a retirement home. It’s this morally questionable act that sets off the film’s main storyline: When checking in on Leo’s empty house, Mike sees a teenage boy on the stoop. That boy is Leo’s grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer), and he has run away from his alcoholic mom, who is now in rehab. Mike and Jackie feel obliged to take Kyle home with them. Eventually, Kyle even joins Mike’s wrestling team.
Newcomer Shaffer, who recalls a young Sean Penn, is a compelling presence as Kyle, who has a shock of platinum-dyed hair and a tribal tattoo on his back: He’s a guarded and taciturn kid, with a definite dark side—that might explain his prowess as a wrestler—but he’s also almost unfailingly sweet and polite. The first night he stays in their basement, Jackie locks the door—but she and Mike come to embrace Kyle as a member of the family.
If Win Win sounds overly earnest, I’ve misled you. It’s actually quite funny. Bobby Canavale and Jeffrey Tambor provide hilarious supporting work as Mike’s overgrown adolescent best friend and pessimistic assistant coach, respectively. (In one adorable scene, they fight to sit next to Mike on the sidelines of a tournament.) There’s also a strange little detail about Kyle needing to be slapped before every match. And Giamatti and Ryan are just soooo good. (Jackie’s little reveal about her hidden tattoo is an absolute gem of a moment.)
The “win-win” of the title refers to the rationalizations we tells ourselves when our intentions are less than pure. Mike feels that his taking care of Leo is a win-win (because Leo, he reasons, is really better of in the elder care facility.) And when he finds out that Kyle is an ace wrestler, good enough to be state champ, that’s another win-win. Take in a wayward boy, and your team becomes a contender.
In the end, though, bonds are formed that just might mean more than state championships and a little extra cash in the till. Lump, meet throat.