Some of us are blessed with stellar genes. Models with good looking mothers and fathers. Artists who inherit their parents’ seemingly unique talents with a brush, pen, camera or keyboard. Athletes whose prowess is handed down in the form of a stellar leap or cannon-like arm. Yet these advantageous qualities can also be tempered or undercut completely when children find their DNA tainted with the curses of their ancestors. In the case of high school basketball phenom Anthony Keller (Taylor John Smith), the killer instincts bequeathed to him by his novelist father (Michael Shannon) have the tag of a consummate fuck up branded onto their behind. First conceived by writer/director Bart Freundlich (Catch That Kid) as a high school writing project, Wolves leans on its central coming of age metaphors until we realize the subtext is literally sewn onto the star player’s Catholic League jersey. However, Freundlich’s NYC sensibilities elevate what could’ve been a rather routine sports film into a genuinely moving portrait of a young sharpshooter learning that he needs to be able to both take a bullet as well as pull the trigger. This becomes especially true once those closest to him threaten to destroy his chances at obtaining a better life than the already cushy blue collar existence he enjoys.
During practice and games, we smell the lacquer in these ancient Catholic school gyms, the resurfaced floors and composite electric bleachers clashing with architecture that’s stood on these blocks for decades. Freundlich knows his way around the court, capturing the drills, scrimmages and playoff matches leading up to the City Championship with aplomb. But he also uses these controlled competitions, with their crisply unfirmed contestants and referees, to clash with the concrete playground pick up games Anthony is fascinated by, but also too intimidated to take off his blazer and call “next”. Like his father – who was quite the player during his high school days – he balks when it comes time to step up and lead in a clutch moment. This concerns the Cornell scouts considering the ace scorer for a scholarship, as it points to a lack of backbone and gall. Furthermore, once Anthony does finally decide to ball with the ex-convicts and street hustlers in this fictionalized cousin to Rucker Park, it takes one trip up the court for the white boy to start getting pushed around and beat on when he fights back.
“Quit being a pussy,” says Socrates (John Douglas Thompson), an assertive frontrunner amongst the hardcore. He picks Anthony up and lets the boy dust himself off, becoming a mentor of sorts outside of the brightly lit prep school gymnasiums and classrooms. Wolves is by no means a subtle movie – just like many of its sports drama peers – but Freundlich uses the park pick up games to add texture and underline its central message. Outside of the arena Anthony’s already conquered he ain’t shit, and he’s going to need to sharpen his fangs if he’s going to survive in this rough world. Now Socrates is here to guide him. It’s a somewhat problematic take on the Magical Negro trope that’s bound to land the picture in hot water with some viewers. The white kid requires the hardened black man, who’s already seen his own NBA dreams shattered, to illustrate just how tough this life can be. But Freundlich’s intentions seem to be in the right place, and he gifts Socrates with an interior life that helps distract from the somewhat troubling thematic nature of he and Anthony’s relationship.
We’ve come to expect a certain level of unhinged intensity from Michael Shannon over the past couple years, but Wolves finds the rightfully lauded actor reeling his passion in just a bit. Lee Keller isn’t a live-wire maniac like Bobby Andes (Nocturnal Animals), or capable of explosive tirades like Curtis LaForche (Take Shelter). Instead, he’s hiding a propensity for violence under the pretext of a domesticated family man. If we were to apply Freundlich’s titular metaphor in the most obvious sense, Lee is the lone wolf, somewhat resentful of the fact that he’s now the head of a den, and that his pup seems to be growing up soft and safe, thanks to the protection of his own Catholic League pack and dutiful mama (Carla Gugino). Shannon conveys this seedy roughness through moments of abuse perpetrated in the name of fatherly lessons. When Anthony comes home with marks on his face from where a burly teammate elbowed him out of frustration, Lee adds another for good measure, popping his kid in the nose while teaching him how to throw cheap warning shots at opponents on the court. A glass of booze is always in front of the writer, who talks about “breakthroughs” with his book, but can’t get a single one of his students to show up at his off-hours lectures about character building (again, not subtle). Lee’s a disaster; bored by an existence tethered to a family he doesn’t seem to want, and the only thrills he gets anymore are when he lets it all ride on professional sporting events. Waiting in the wings are a slew of bookies and their hired thugs, looking to take a kneecap when Lee’s “sure things” don’t cover the spread.
Wolves details the class divide in New York City through appropriation and segregation. From the very first scene, one of Anthony’s best friends – a Korean kid named Gil (Jake Choi) – almost gets his ass kicked by one of their black teammates for calling every person he sees, regardless of their race, a “nigga”. Anthony’s girlfriend Victoria (Zazie Beetz) is an African-American student who (in a rather off-putting subplot) the star gets pregnant and then forces to have an abortion. On one hand, it speaks to the diverse nature of Freundlich’s casting. On the other, the casual racism and rather scummy response Anthony has to potentially having a family with a girl outside his race (whether that’s his central motivation or not) creates a rather obvious schism that separates the black characters from even those white and brown folks they choose to call their friends. The fact that this divide is never commented upon feels realistic, but in an uncomfortably undercooked way. But that’s part of what makes Wolves compelling – these touches seem to indicate greater intentions than your average athletic coming of age picture. While certainly flawed, the ambition is admirable.
Ambition is also what undoes the bond between Anthony and Lee, but not in the way you may guess while watching Wolves. Where the sins of the shooter’s hapless miscreant father haunt and test the boy, they also mirror actions he’s taking even as a teenager. Here lies another one of the fascinating themes Freundlich approaches, with somewhat ham-fisted success. He’s working within the broad outline of a genre, adding lived-in detail to this particular muscular universe, while hitting most of the beats we expect out of this sort of thing. Though some third act contrivances will induce minor eye-rolling (as Lee almost graduates to horrific villain by the film’s end) they still help push Anthony’s story forward in a fashion that feels thoroughly realized. This isn’t a flashy piece of cinema, but the fundamentals are sound enough for Freundlich to add an ample amount of gritty filmic flair.