HIGH-SCHOOL WRESTLING might be the un-prettiest sport yet devised by humans, a competition in which pasty adolescent boys, bedecked in unflattering singlets, grapple one another while rolling around a gymnasium floor. Win Win doesn't shy away from this distinctly ugly truth. Director Thomas McCarthy's (The Station Agent) new film depicts high-school wrestling in all its painful, gangly, bepimpled awkwardness, and the surprising result is one of the best sports movies in recent years. Of course, Win Win isn't exclusively a "sports movie": There's a bunch of family drama centered around the team's star wrestler, Kyle (Alex Shaffer), but it's one of the film's many strengths that it neatly avoids the sulking and brooding of your typical adolescent-in-trouble flicks.
Kyle has run away from his mother in Ohio to look for his grandfather, Leo (Burt Young), in New Jersey. But the supposedly infirm Leo has recently been put into a nursing home—so now the old man's lawyer, Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), is serving as Leo's de facto caretaker. But Mike's also the coach of the high-school wrestling team, and when he discovers Kyle wrestled a bit in Ohio, he recruits the runaway teen for the team.
There's more to the story, of course, and a lot more to Giamatti's character, a family man struggling to pay his bills while watching his legal practice founder. Jeffrey Tambor and Bobby Cannavale play his two assistant coaches; together, the three actors make a formidable comic trio. In particular, the terrific Cannavale (playing Terry, Mike's newly divorced best friend) is especially hilarious as he navigates what is and is not appropriate behavior for a high-school coach.
The plot wheels of Win Win start clicking a little noisily toward the film's conclusion, as Mike deals with the repercussions of a questionable decision he made near the beginning of the film. It's the only place where the story rings a little false. The rest of the time, the perfectly pitched Win Win feels astonishingly like real life: funny, moving, a little sad, and filled with lots of awkward groping.