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Excellent performances from Michael Shannon, Carla Gugino and young newcomer Taylor John Smith aren’t enough to offset the narrative clichés of Bart Freundlich’s (The Myth of Fingerprints) drama about a high school basketball star struggling with family dysfunction. Combining ‘70s era, gritty urban tropes with plot elements that would have seemed corny in old Warner Bros. melodramas, Wolves, receiving its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, feels familiar every step of the way even while exuding a unearned sense of self-importance.
Smith plays 18-year-old Anthony, called “Saint” by his schoolmates at St. Anthony’s and “Cornell” by others by dint of his being wooed as an athlete to attend the prestigious university. But while Anthony seems to have it all, including a loving girlfriend (Zazie Beetz) and the adoration of his coach and teammates, he’s deeply troubled at home. His father, Lee (Shannon), a novelist who teaches at a community college, is buried in gambling debts, threatening the family’s financial security. It’s also put a strain on his marriage, with Anthony’s mother Jenny (Gugino) struggling emotionally to hold things together.
Lee, who has a serious drinking problem, is a Great Santini-sort of father who teaches his son a lesson by clocking him in the head during a basketball demonstration. Alternately loving and abusive, his volatility takes a toll on everyone around him, including his loyal brother Charlie (Chris Bauer), who carries him home when he’s drunk. And the situation only worsens as Lee’s debts escalate and mobsters begin threatening reprisals, leading him to take a terrible step that may cost his son his college scholarship.
As he works hard to secure a championship for his team the Wolves, Anthony begins a friendship with Socrates (John Douglas Thompson), a former pro-basketball player fallen on hard times who frequents pick-up games on public courts. But the relationship is not without its difficulties, as the new mentor has anger management issues.
Poor Anthony would seem to have enough trouble for one movie, but writer/director Freundlich pours it on by introducing such plot elements as his girlfriend getting pregnant and his suffering a potentially career-threatening injury that prevents him from leading his team to victory in the final game. Or does it?
The film conjures a strong sense of atmosphere, with the gritty NYC locations — yes, there are still some in the gentrified city — well captured by cinematographer Juanmil Azpiroz. And the performances are first-rate: Shannon is as compelling as always, although you can feel him struggling with his character’s wild inconsistencies; Gugino delivers a powerful turn as the loving mother who begins breaking away from her troubled husband; and Smith combines young heartthrob looks with a brooding intensity. The supporting players are equally memorable, with Bauer quietly touching as the uncle helplessly watching his brother’s life fall apart and Thompson, who has garnered acclaim for his superb classical theater performances, making a strong impression in his schematic role.
But by the time it reaches its hoary climax involving the championship game where the debt-ridden father is stalked by the gangsters, Wolves has reached such an absurd level of schmaltz that it practically feels like a parody of itself.
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight)
Production: Process Media
Cast: Michael Shannon, Carla Gugino, Taylor John Smith, Chris Bauer, John Douglas Thompson
Director-screenwriter: Bart Freundlich
Producers: Tim Perell, Bart Freundlich
Executive producers: Bill Koenigsberg, Erika Pearsall, Erica Steinberg
Director of photography: Juanmi Azpiroz
Production designer: Elizabeth Jones
Editor: Joseph Krings
Costume designer: Stacey Battat
Composer: David Bridie
Casting: Doug Aibel, Henry Russell Bergstein
Not rated, 109 minutes
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