Writer-director Tom McCarthy is now 3-for-3 at Sundance thanks to his charming, surprisingly affecting dramedy "Win Win," which is easily the best movie I've seen at Sundance so far.
Fox Searchlight is distributing the film on March 18, so fans of McCarthy's "The Station Agent" and "The Visitor" won't have to wait too long for his latest effort.
Paul Giamatti stars as Mike Flaherty, an attorney who moonlights as a high school wrestling coach. Mike is going through some financial difficulties, so he agrees to become the guardian of Leo Poplar (Burt Young), an older client who's in the early stages of dementia and has been deemed incapacitated by the state of New Jersey.
With this responsibility comes a caretaker stipend of $1500 a month. Leo wants to live at home, but Mike doesn't have the time to take care of him, so he temporarily stashes Leo in an old folks' home.
Complications arise when a troubled teenager named Kyle (talented newcomer Alex Shaffer) arrives on Leo's doorstep, claiming to be the grandson he never knew. You see, Leo's daughter (Melanie Lynskey) is a drug addict who's in rehab and couldn't really care less about her son.
Mike has no choice but to take Kyle into his home with his wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan), and two young daughters. At first, the family isn't sure what to make of Kyle, who smokes cigarettes, has bleached-blond hair and tattoos, and doesn't talk much.
Eventually, Mike learns that Kyle was a state champion wrestler back in Ohio, and decides to enroll the teen in high school so he can join the wrestling team, which becomes another surrogate family to him.
It's not long before Kyle's mother arrives in town looking to take her father and son back to Ohio with her. Kyle, of course, wants nothing to do with her.
I won't say much more than that.
The performances are truly excellent across the board. Giamatti and Ryan are both predictably fantastic, though it's McCarthy's go-to-guy Bobby Cannavale who steals the movie as Mike's best friend Terry, an unemployed hedge fund type whose wife has recently left him. A former wrestler himself, Terry asks Mike if he can join (the always hilarious) Jeffrey Tambor as an assistant coach for the team, and in that position, provides much of the film's comic relief. It's a tailor-made supporting role for him and he knocks it out of the park with his timing.
Sheffer delivers an impressive debut with one of the most natural teen performances I've seen in some time. He has a complicated role to play that demands more from him as the movie goes on, and the rookie actor is more than up to the task of holding his own with Oscar nominees Giamatti and Ryan.
Credit is due to the film's casting director, as fellow newcomer David Thompson (making his feature debut) also makes a memorable impression as one of Kyle's less-talented teammates.
I fully expect the screenplay, co-written by McCarthy and former wrestling teammate Joe Tiboni, to be a serious contender for Best Original Screenplay at next year's Academy Awards. I mean, it's never too early to start making outlandish Oscar predictions, and McCarthy has awards pedigree, having been previously nominated for co-writing Pixar's "Up."
"Win Win" is a surprisingly emotional journey with a quiet power that sneaks up on you. I even squeezed out a tear when Jackie finally tells Kyle that he is loved. It's a movie about moral choices and how hard it is to do the right thing sometimes. The audience at the Eccles Theater ate it up this morning, and I have no doubt it will be a major crowd pleaser when it opens this spring.
The National and Sharon Von Etten contribute a great closing track that was written specifically for the film.