Film Review: Wolves

Up until its absurd ending, 'Wolves' is a familiar but engaging film about a teenage athlete in a troubled family attempting to navigate life’s bumpy road to maturity.
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There’s nothing wrong with grade-B films, especially if the acting and production values are on a high level. Indeed, they can be quite entertaining, and throughout most of writer-director Bert Freundlich’s coming-of-age drama, Wolves is a spot-on example of the genre. That is, until its credulity-defying end that just plain and simple ruins it.

Most of the action is set on New York’s gritty Lower East Side. Anthony (Taylor John Smith), a high-school basketball star, has his sights set on a basketball scholarship to Cornell. He’s on the cusp of receiving it, but family problems abound, not least his parents’ inability to pay his school tuition (a parochial school, one assumes).

Anthony’s father Lee (Michael Shannon) is a failed novelist, self-deceiving liar and inveterate gambler. He owes thousands of dollars to low-level mobsters-cum-loan-sharks (the latter are right out of central casting) and predictably enough they cut off his pinky. As the stakes rise, he mortgages his beleaguered wife Jenny’s (Carla Gugino) small upstate cabin to the hilt. At the same time, Anthony has a devastating accident that prevents him from playing in the Wolves’ championship game, and as luck would have it Cornell’s coach will be in attendance.

It’s a classic soap with no shortage of oedipal themes and romantic entanglements, including “Uncle Charlie” (Chris Bauer), Lee’s brother and Jenny’s first boyfriend, who is always on hand to help out. Anthony, aka “Saint,” has girlfriend trouble too. All of Anthony’s high-school pals are involved in interracial romances. Contemporary: check. Urban: check. Anthony also enjoys the company of Socrates (John Douglas Thompson), a tough but good hearted, philosophy-spewing street hustler—arguably a surrogate father—who was at one time a basketball-playing pro.

The film moves along at a clipped pace, the basketball scenes are wonderfully exciting (even to non-fans of the game), and cinematographer Juan Miguel Azpiroz vividly captures the city’s pre-gentrification pockets that are hanging on by a thread with the flavor of a bygone era still intact.

The acting is superlative. Smith is every bit the earnest athlete/boyfriend/son trapped in a world he doesn’t understand and is attempting to navigate. Thompson is top-notch as the streetwise has-been; likewise Gugino, playing committed wife and mother wrestling with the realization that she can no longer take it. Wayne Duvall embodies the savagely competitive coach hell-bent on his team winning, as does Bauer as a solitary figure, still in love with the girl his undeserving brother married, and always the supportive family man.

But in the end, the picture belongs to Shannon, who is stellar as the tormented loser who is embracing and abusive towards his son, needs his wife yet resents her, and is both self-loathing and enraged at the world.

But then there’s that aforementioned final scene: the championship game that will inform everyone’s fate—from the crippled Anthony forced to sit it out on the sidelines to Lee in the bleachers, flanked on all sides by gangsters. Suffice it to say the end is beyond ludicrous, coming out of nowhere and manipulatively tacked on. It’s intended to make the audience feel good when in fact it has the reverse effect. I for one felt exploited.

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