Saturday I provided the wheels for Striker, her new beau, and another friend to get to the movies. They were going to see Soul Surfer. In the car it became clear that Striker’s friend “Kennedy” was confused about the premise of the movie. I heard her calling her dad on the phone: “Dad, can you tell mom that it’s not the movie about the guy who goes back five minutes in time to save people’s lives. It’s about a girl getting her arm bitten off by a shark.” I know it’s unfair to both movies to say this, but I thought, listening to Kennedy, “And that, in a nutshell, is what’s wrong with the film industry.” Such high concepts – and yes, I know “Soul Surfer” is based on a true story – but so little real life. I mean real, as in life being lived by recognizable human beings.
Later that same day Mr. Right and I went to see Win Win. I’m happy to report that it was low concept and full of real people. You should see it. I tried explaining the movie to a friend today and stumbled over the plot, not because it’s fantastically complicated but because it sounds so commonplace. Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti, quietly exasperated through much of the movie) is a lawyer with a small, struggling practice. He feels crushing financial pressure but doesn’t want his wife, Jackie, to know how tight things really are. It’s on that simple foundation that the entire movie rests, but what makes it compelling are the characters. Is Mike a good guy? He seems to be an involved father, a faithful husband, an affable employer and friend and wrestling coach. But there’s more going on in Mike. His motives are mixed, he’s not telling his wife everything, he’s trying to get away with a scheme that he thinks will do no harm. He’s wrong about that, of course, and we know it as we watch the movie. So why is Mike still so sympathetic?
Mike’s wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) is warm and nurturing with a strong moral center. When a teenage runaway enters the Flaherty’s lives she initially sees him as a threat to her young daughters. Soon she recognizes Kyle as another child in need of care and becomes fiercely committed to protecting him. And yet…Jackie, too, has her weaknesses. There is a point when even her principles begins to crack and she pushes Mike to compromise his (already damaged) integrity. Is she a good woman?
As for Kyle, he comes closest to unalloyed goodness. Smoking, tatooed, bleached blonde – he certainly gives off a “bad kid” vibe on first appearance. Jackie refers sharply to him as “Eminem” and wants to lock him away from her daughters before realizing what a kind, thoughtful and self-contained boy he really is.
Kyle is played by Alex Shaffer, a teenager with no previous screen experience. And he’s amazing. The performance reminded me of Paul Dano’s in Little Miss Sunshine. Both play boys on the brink of adulthood – taciturn, emotionally restrained, and yet communicating great depths of emotion with just their eyes. Kyle is an innocent in many ways; a victim. But even he is not an uncomplicated character. Kyle has a pattern of self-destructing just when meaningful success is within his reach.
This is what what I love about “Win Win”: there is more going on with everyone than we can first see – and so it is with all of us. We’re all a confusing admixture of selflessness and self-interest, of wisdom and foolishness, of courage and cowardice. We’re all better than our worst actions, but also worse than our best actions. There is a point in the movie when Mike asks another character not for forgiveness, but for a second chance. The willingness to provide either one – forgiveness or a second chance – depends on our ability to see the potential for something more, something different than the behavior we’ve seen. We must allow for the possibility that good and bad can exist side by side even in the people we love. We must open ourselves up to being hurt, betrayed, disappointed again. That’s grace: making ourselves vulnerable and thereby providing the opportunity for another to do better than they’ve done before.
Here’s the other thing you need to know about “Win Win” which I have not yet made clear. It’s very, very funny. Really. To say something good and true about life and human nature and the need for second chances and to do it while being laugh out loud funny is quite an accomplishment.
The National recorded a song that plays over the credits of “Win Win”. It’s beautiful and I’ve listened to it about 15 times since seeing the movie. According to The National’s lead singer Tom Berninger the song was written after watching the film and was inspired by the themes of “very normal and good people trying to do their best and the struggle to be good.” I don’t know about you, but that’s a pretty fair description of where I live my life.