It’s difficult to tell what kind of film Bart Freundlich’s Wolves is precisely supposed to be. It’s a sports movie, that much is certain, centered around a high school basketball player, Anthony Keller (Taylor John Smith), who’s attempting to get into Cornell University on a scholarship. A gifted and good-looking three-point shooter, Anthony would appear to possess the attributes necessary for success as a college athlete. But Anthony’s career trajectory is imperiled by his father, Lee (Michael Shannon), a distinctively Shannon-ian misfit: a failure, in this case a writer who’ll likely be working on his first novel until the day he dies, with volcanic reserves of anger that are expressed by alcoholism, abuse, and a prodigious gambling problem. Meanwhile, Anthony’s mother, Jenny (Carla Gugino), enables Lee by remaining on the figurative sidelines, doing nothing, hoping that her husband will magically work through his issues and halt his resentment of their son’s promise.
The gifted young man, the fallen father, and the self-delusional mother are all classic figures of the coming-of-age sports narrative typically favored by American cinema. This formula also usually allows the athlete in question to transcend his inherited anger with the profound coaxing of a mentor, who appears on cue to Anthony in the form of a streetwise African-American who calls himself Socrates (John Douglas Thompson). Socrates periodically complicates this film’s rarefied energy, adding a tang of racial friction that’s disappointingly unexplored. Anthony, a posh white boy who’s had a harder run of things than Socrates could know, shows up on a public basketball court in New York City, populated predominantly by African-Americans, and insists on playing their rougher kind of street ball. So, a second, potentially insensitive narrative begins to surface in Wolves, concerned with a resentful Caucasian who tries to prove that he’s down with black culture.
There’s also an After School Special-like subplot between Anthony and his girlfriend, Victoria (Zazie Beetz), as well as a gangster narrative pivoting on Lee and his increasingly absurd wagers, and so one begins to see the problem. There’s enough plot in Wolves for a smorgasbord of clichéd genre films, or for one transcendentally lurid film by James Toback, who often knowingly uses the absurdity of his macho fantasies as the launching pad for his volatile, alternately self-flattering and self-critical inquiries of white male privilege. But Freundlich works in an earnest, plodding manner. Every scene in Wolves is overlong and obvious, staged in an anonymously dull and murky vérité style that vaguely suggests the dynamically gritty, camera-swinging aesthetic of The Squid and the Whale. Freundlich alternates somewhat arbitrarily between his various plots, leaving a lot of loose ends in the process, lacking even the finesse to build a logical paternal rivalry between Lee and Socrates.
The filmmaker humorlessly works his way toward a patently ridiculous climax that merges all the stories together in a melodramatic traffic jam, including a fateful split-second shot that’s made as the endgame buzzer sounds, while an awful father looks on in wonder and disgust, after a wounded son has put himself back on the line for one final stab at qualified glory. These gimmicks can still work in the right hands, but they require shamelessness, a sense of disreputable aggression; an artist must double-down on the emotional muckraking and exploit the audience’s desire for wish-fulfilling malarkey. Alas, Freundlich is too tasteful and timid a director for such bluntness, as he believes he’s mounting a family drama rather than a self-pitying fantasia of the athlete who almost but never quite actualizes. Wolves is imprisoned by its determination to transcend its busy thicket of stereotypes.