Although “Wolves”, writer/director Bart Freundlich’s sixth feature film, is decidedly not great, it is nevertheless still compelling, or at the very least “watchable”, given its generally professional direction, most notably in some crackling scenes of domestic bliss and tension between a father and mother played by its two biggest names, Michael Shannon and Carla Gugino, succeeding in spite of the screenplay. Because that screenplay…oof, it’s an odd amalgam of “The Gambler” (1974), but one sapped of any insight, and “He Got Game”, though re-told as a white kid’s fantasy with a magical negro that would rightfully make Spike Lee go apoplectic. And while on a base level it grasps Conflict, tossing some in from every angle, it does not always grasp what engenders its Conflict or how to revealingly spur all this Conflict to convincing Resolution.
“Wolves” centers on high school basketball star Anthony Keller (Taylor John Smith), inevitably nicknamed St. Anthony for his sweet three point shot, one that has brought his team to the precipice of a state title and recruiters to Cornell from his doorstep, though the recruiters, like others who know Anthony well, sniff out the kid’s kryptonite, a distaste for brute physicality and a fear of the Big Moment. I might argue that Cornell, which went 8-21 last year, would be lucky to have St. Anthony Keller sniping from behind the arc, and hey, if they don’t want you then just take your talents over to Staten Island and Wagner since I’m sure they’d give you a full ride. But, I pick nits. The point is Anthony’s on court angst derives from his questionable at home environment, which, frankly, despite all the hardwood rigors, is where “Wolves” is best.
Anthony’s father Lee (Shannon) is a New York college literature professor doubling as a degenerate gambler, which makes him sound like a retread of James Caan’s Axel Freed in the aforementioned “The Gambler”, although, to be fair, Freed was Harvard educated and, as Lee says of where he instructs in the movie’s best line, “this isn’t even a good college.” (That’s an obvious metaphor for the movie itself and we will leave it alone.) “The Gambler”, however, tenaciously unpacked its character’s addiction while “Wolves” seems to think gambling and debt revolves almost entirely around ominous men in suits coming to collect debts.
Still, Shannon, ever committed, whose hair perpetually suggests he was just fiercely tousling it while watching whatever team he picked to win lose, invests his part with a convincing mania, never more so than opposite Gugino as Lee’s wife Jenny, a mostly thankless part that Gugino still fills out. Their marriage may be teetering because of her husband’s addiction, but Gugino does not simply push back against it. She plays at an attraction to Lee, just as Shannon plays at one to her, and one moment finds their characters downing cocktails in the immediate aftermath of Lee winning a bet, seeming to suggest that she too gets off on this action, and the way that these parents so brazenly flaunt their attraction and their problems right there in front of their kid suggests the road not taken that maybe should have been. These scenes are sharply played and sharply observed.
But that is of less interest to “Wolves” than the basketball, filled out, somewhat, by Lee’s past as a once promising baseball prospect, suggesting Lavar Ball-ish origins as a man trying to live out his failed dreams through his son. That cannot be easy for Anthony, sure, but it’s worth noting, given all the parallels to “He Got Game’s” own basketball recruiting saga, that the latter’s coveted player, Jesus Shuttlesworth (Ray Allen), was dealing with a dad in prison, on account of inadvertently killing Jesus’s mom, raising his sister and fending off hangers-on though his basketball skills never once suffered as as result. I imagine Jesus scoffing at little St. Anthony.
Then again, “Wolves” does kind of scoff at little St. Anthony in the form of (I’m not making this up) Socrates (John Douglas Thompson), the aforementioned magical negro, an ex-basketball legend haunting the playgrounds, who in a better movie might have suggested Lloyd Daniels, mentors St. Anthony, going so far as to show up at the Big Game to belt out inspiration like Charles S. Dutton in “Rudy.” Lord, it’s insulting and taken in conjunction with St. Anthony’s teammate, a stereotypical broadly comical Asian, someone needed to throw cold water on Freundlich’s face and ask him what the hell he thought he was doing?
These are just a couple other dramatic balls that Freundlich hurls into the air, along with an entire romantic subplot for St. Anthony that includes a teen pregnancy digression that lasts all of a montage, that, as if realizing is too much to wrap up in a regular run time, all get settled in a positively bonkers concluding scene at the Big Game ripped straight from the high school play strategy of get everyone on stage at the end. Prior to his requisite climactic free throw, Anthony looks to his dad in the stands and Lee’s reaction is bashful, almost embarrassed, which Shannon, perhaps unwittingly, plays more to the audience than Anthony, as if to say “Yeah, I can’t believe this either.” And when he gets squired away by those ominous men in suits coming to collect debts, it looks less like sadness than sweet relief.