As coaches say in off-the-court motivational speeches and books, character matters most (on the court, it’s winning that reigns, obviously). It’s also the most important element of Bart Freundlich’s coming-of-age basketball film. Removing the sport from the equation still leaves a solid if predictable drama about the pressures of growing up and the challenges of a complex family dynamic, boosted by yet another great performance from Michael Shannon.
Named for a New York City Catholic school team, “Wolves” centers on Anthony Keller (Taylor John Smith). Graduation looms for the star basketball player, who is captain of the team, gets good grades, and has a beautiful girlfriend, Victoria (Zazie Beetz). As his senior year advances, however, he faces struggles, both at home and at school. His tuition hasn’t been paid, while his father Lee (Shannon) has a gambling addiction that is beginning to place a strain on Anthony’s mother, Jenny (Carla Gugino), while Anthony’s uncle Charlie (Chris Bauer) steps in to try and help. There’s a growing pressure on both Anthony and Lee throughout the film, culminating in a climax that is at once standard within the sports-movie genre and goes well beyond the tropes audiences are used to.
“Wolves” invests heavily in character, creating an emotionally involving narrative. As Anthony, Smith doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, but he is able to communicate volumes with his eyes. He’s a smart kid whom we identify with as he makes mistakes both on and off the court, and he’s an easy presence to root for. By contrast, his father is believably monstrous, mostly thanks to another stellar turn from Shannon. Lee is a complex character that receives a layered portrayal from the actor, who exhibits charisma that points toward why his wife fell for him and stays despite his issues. He feels pride and affection for both Jenny and Anthony, but because of his gambling addiction and insecurities, he often behaves cruelly. It would be easier to turn away from this unlikeable character if played by a lesser actor, but you’re always curious about what Shannon will do next.
The tone gradually changes as the film goes on, moving from hopeful to tense. Pressure mounts on the Keller men in parallel with the running time. Anthony’s time on the team — and time to impress scouts — is growing shorter as the season approaches its end. He is encouraged by his coaches to be more aggressive, but he struggles in clutch moments. Meanwhile, the debts his father has amassed around town are due to be paid, with three bookies harassing him at both his job and the bars he frequents. The drama is balanced by funny moments early on, particularly thanks to the efforts of Anthony’s friend Gil (Jake Choi) and some light humor and charm from Shannon’s Lee. As “Wolves” progresses and things get more serious for our protagonist, Freundlich seems to forget about Gil, only to have him reappear as the picture is winding down. Taking over is Socrates (John Douglas Thompson), an aging black sage that Anthony meets on the rough courts at West Fourth Street. Without insight from either his father or his selfish coach, Anthony relies on often-too-predictable wisdom from Socrates to advance his game with little insight into Socrates’ character beyond that name.
Freundlich made a splash in the indie world with his 1997 debut “The Myth of Fingerprints,” but he’s failed to replicate that success in the two decades since. This is an imperfect film, but it’s the closest he’s come to redemption after making “Trust The Man,” “World Traveler” and “Catch That Kid.” Like his first film, “Wolves” is boosted by excellent performances that help to cover some deficiencies in this script. Having Anthony attend Saint Anthony’s and earning the nickname “Saint” as a result feels like a cutesy contrivance. And Anthony also probably could’ve done with a few less problems to overcome, with the screenplay feeling somewhat overloaded at times.
“Wolves” somehow manages to combine two disparate, often cliché-driven stories — the sports narrative and the addiction tale — into a film that is slightly more than the sum of its parts. Freundlich mostly succeeds in the genre mash-up approach to his film, and fans of sports movies will be able to cheer for the on-court action that is coupled with off-court drama. But delivering another nuanced role, Shannon is the film’s MVP. [B-]