Bart Freundlich (“Catch That Kid”) isn’t known for making particularly subtle movies, and “Wolves” — for all its virtues — won’t do much to undo that reputation. A clunky but compelling coming-of-age saga about a prep school basketball phenom (Taylor John Smith) whose future is threatened by his father’s (Michael Shannon) gambling addiction, this is the kind of film that milks every metaphor until its dry and then eats the cow for dinner. And yet, while “Wolves” sometimes strains even harder than his 2005 relationship drama, “Trust the Man,” Freundlich’s palpable connection to this story breathes it full of life. That vitality didn’t come easy (“Wolves” finds the filmmaker reviving characters that he first conceived for a high school writing assignment more than two decades ago), but the personal touch makes this by far the best of his six features to date.
Anthony is such a godsend to his school’s hoops team — the Wolves — that his dopey friends and short-skirted fans refer to him as “Saint.” Blessed with a silky three-point shot and an eye for open spots on the court, Anthony would already have locked down that coveted Cornell scholarship if not for the one fatal flaw in his game: he’s a pushover. He lacks a killer instinct. A wide-eyed kid whose face is frozen in a permanent deer-in-the-headlights look, Anthony plays the game with sweetness instead of strength and wilts when anyone gets in his grill. He doesn’t know how to throw a foul, and it soon becomes obvious why he may not be interested in learning.
Lee, Anthony’s dad, is a literature professor at a third-rate Manhattan university. By day, he delivers half-hearted lectures on the basics of storytelling; by night, he compulsively bets his son’s college fund on local sports, spinning several different plates at a time as he gambles with one shady bookie in order to pay his debt to another. For a guy who teaches fiction writing 101, he should know that this story never ends well.
As with many of the characters in this movie, Lee is best understood through the titular metaphor that Freundlich has literally sewn into the movie on everything from jerseys to gymnasium banners. He’s a lone wolf who somehow got saddled with a family — once upon a time, Anthony’s loving mother (Carla Gugino) must have been seduced by his feral charms, and the son they bore galvanized them into a pack. But Lee has gone primitive, revealing himself to be more of a monster with every passing day. Freundlich, to his immense credit — never entertains a real possibility for redemption, and Shannon never angles for any. His menacing performance is familiar, almost on auto-pilot, but you can’t help but keep your guard up so long as he’s prowling around the screen.
Anthony, by contrast, is meant to be a mewling pup, but Smith fails to endow this wannabe Hamlet with any of the tools required to convincingly overcome his own helplessness. “Wolves” is about a kid who’s struggling to reconcile his father’s ruthlessness with his mother’s romanticism — to be strong enough to survive alone but sociable enough that he doesn’t have to. Smith plays him as a wet blanket, and the character feels too simple for such a complicated world.
For the first time in his career, however, Freundlich is able to pave over the potholes of his storytelling with the sheer force of his craft. A lifelong Manhattanite, he’s always possessed an intuitive understanding of the city’s unique currents, but “Wolves” finds him evincing a newfound talent for translating that sense to the screen. Most crucially, the film is attuned to how growing up in the city can feel like being raised in the wild. Anthony lives in the center of the world, but the streets are telling him that he ain’t shit. There are no free throws in life. The uniforms that he and his friends wear around town are like the non-contact jerseys that injured athletes wear during team practice.
Freundlich also reveals a rare ability to mine mine sports for their buried drama, and “Wolves” boasts several of the most compelling basketball scenes since “Hoop Dreams.” The director has clearly spent a lot of his life daydreaming his way through all of the different scenarios in which he might hit that game-winning shot, and the time swallowed by that overactive imagination has finally paid off.
But the authenticity of the film’s setting begins to rub against the contrivances of its plot — there isn’t an angle of Anthony’s story that Freundlich doesn’t have a subplot to solve. On their own, they range from the finely wrought (Chris Bauer shines as the kid’s unofficial uncle) to the hilariously strained (e.g. a “Finding Forrester”-esque thread in which Anthony befriends a grizzled NBA vet baller). When these stray threads are clumsily knotted together during the climactic championship game, the ungainly mass makes it hard to take what follows seriously.
The film, like its young hero, struggles to be decent. But if “Wolves” convincingly illustrates anything, it’s that decentness can be a victory in its own right.
“Wolves” premieres this week at the Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently without U.S. distribution.