Back in 1997, “The Myth of Fingerprints” forecast a promising start for its writer/director Bart Freundlich. Having received modestly positive reviews by critics at the time for its nuanced characters, most attention was brought to Freundlich for an ambitious debut, but adherence to convention and cliché inhibited the filmmaker from becoming an overnight success story. All the mistakes made in his debut were to be altered, but “World Traveler” showed nothing had been learned, and by the time “Catch That Kid” (now remembered as one of Kristen Stewart’s earliest embarrassments) was released, all promise had been dwindled and lost for Freundlich.
Wolves, Freundlich’s latest also, unfortunately, demonstrates an emphatic comfort with utilizing cliché and convention at almost every opportunity.
See if this sounds familiar: Anthony Keller (Taylor John Smith in his first leading role) is a young basketball player whose talent has earned him the position of captain on his team. Destined for success, Anthony is recruited by Cornell University, but his English professor dad (Michael Shannon, “Man of Steel”) inhibits his son partly from jealousy but significantly from a crippling gambling addiction that puts Anthony’s future in jeopardy. However, with the help of a former pro basketball player, Socrates (John Douglas Thompson, “The Bourne Legacy”), as his mentor, Anthony pushes himself to overcome his obstacles in time for the big game which will take up the climax of the entire film.
Freundlich almost defiantly relies on the basic principles of cinematic narrative with early scenes of Michael Shannon detailing story conventions that serve as a blatant meta-commentary on everything that will happen for the rest of the film. At the very least, if predictability is the film’s biggest weakness, it plays out its tropes with obvious passion and skill to make them as entertaining as possible. The strength of Wolves comes from its actors.
Shannon delivers an expectedly powerful performance as Anthony’s father, often stealing scenes by sheer presence. That isn’t to diminish Taylor John Smith either, who holds his own against Shannon and Carla Gugino (“Watchmen”) with shades of ambiguity that the script severely lacks. Likewise, as strong as its performances are, the real star of the film is the basketball play itself. There’s a great sense of verisimilitude in these games, from the foul mouthed sportsmanship, excellent choreography, and camera shots which convincingly make each moment feel dynamic and naturally paced. These outstanding moments help to carry the film through despite the severe abundance of problems that its script has with overuse of derivative plot points.
Wolves suffers from too many stories off the court to fill the time between its set pieces, never allowing any attention or focus to be had on what are serious subjects to explore in any movie. Shannon’s Lee Keller never has his gambling addiction and abusive relationship with his wife and Anthony explored beyond the constraints it places on his son, and a pregnancy subplot involving Anthony and his long-time girlfriend (Zazie Beetz, “Atlanta” TV series) is shrugged off with an emergency room and a fade to black. These moments operate as painfully contrived elements that serve to complete the metaphor of overcoming life’s obstacles that all sports films seem obligated to have.
While its better scenes help to distract from these moments, clichés are still clichés, and no matter what strengths its actors bring to the film, Wolves still remains a mostly bland, uninteresting drama that left this viewer feeling underwhelmed as its credits begin to roll.