Casting is also vital here as the entire ensemble grounds their particular troubles or quirks in droll insight. Paul Giamatti underplays and internalizes the kind of schlubby Everyman melancholy he usually portrays with more manic neurosis; this is the best he’s ever been. As his wife, Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone, The Office) is a prototypical Mamma Grizzly, tender at her core but vicious when young people are threatened, while Bobby Cannavale (The Other Guys) and Jeffrey Tambor (Tangled) add comic relief and heart as Mike’s friends and not-so-helpful wrestling coach assistants.

As the troubled young wrestler Kyle, first-time actor Alex Shaffer is a real discovery. His disaffected angst is natural and sympathetic, not some act or rebellious persona. He wants to do right and succeed but, due to a drug-addict mother, has never been given the structure or guidance to learn how, or had a parental role model he could trust. 

There is a special chemistry in the guarded-but-evolving bond between Kyle and Mike, and it’s one of the most unexpected (and therefore best) mentor relationships we’ve seen from a movie in quite some time. It requires something from both, sacrifice by both, and leaps of faith when character lapses are painfully exposed.

Like the indie sensation Little Miss Sunshine from a few years ago, Win Win affirms conservative values but within a liberal sensibility that includes a loose allowance of profanity from adults and occasionally kids. While that content is not pervasive, its presence may taint the experience for those who would otherwise be inclined to love this wholeheartedly. 

Artistically, Win Win is even better than that Oscar-winner. Its hipster vibe is more subdued, it doesn’t strain as hard to earn its emotional payoff, and it faces rather than shirks consequences by requiring hard choices instead of falling back on escalating contrivances. Win Win may be formulaic in plot, but it’s authentic in the details.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol Content: Beer is consumed, both at home and in a bar. No drunkenness. Smoking occurs both by an adult and a teenager. Themes and effects of drug use are portrayed, but never actually seen.
  • Language/Profanity: Language (occasionally very strong) appears throughout. Regular use of the s-word (including a couple of instances by a little girl), a couple variations of the a-word, the Lord’s name is taken in vain (3 uses of J.C.), and several uses of the f-word. Also, occasional light profanities (damn, hell).
  • Sexual Content/Nudity: None.
  • Violence: Nothing graphic or offensive. An adult gets into a physical altercation with a teenager, but as a point of dramatic tension rather than justification.