DVD Review – Wolves (2017)
It was funny to see the IFC Films logo before this movie started and then the very first scene are three teenagers watching a basketball game at the West 4th Street Courts along 6th Avenue across the street from New York’s IFC Center. Given this film played at the IFC Center in March 2017, it just seemed like an interesting piece of synergy.
Even though this film stars Michael Shannon, the two-time, Oscar-nominated actor, and even though it also stars Carla Gugino, an amazing actress who has been working in Hollywood for nearly 30 years, ever since she was a child herself, and even though it features a fantastic supporting cast, the reason I watched this movie was because of young actor, Taylor John Smith. I first noticed Smith in the second season of ABC’s American Crime. His role was very brief, but it was enough to intrigue me about what he might do next.
Taylor John Smith plays Anthony Keller, a senior at a Manhattan prep school in which he’s the star basketball player. He’s probably the best shooter on his team. He makes every shot. His two best friends are also on the team. He has a beautiful girlfriend and a recruiter at Cornell University is interested in giving him a basketball scholarship. He has a pretty good life.
Writer-director Bart Freundlich does create drama, but it doesn’t seem to have much consequence to Anthony’s trajectory. Namely, he makes Anthony’s father, Lee Keller, played by Shannon, a gambling addict who can be somewhat abusive. Initially, there’s some trouble with Anthony’s tuition and one doubts if Lee will be able to pay it. Yet, the tuition problem is only mentioned once and then dropped. As the movie ends, this issue is never really resolved. Freundlich also makes Lee abusive toward Anthony, but it’s not clear as to why. At first, it appears symptomatic of his drinking, but a scene while Lee seems sober is very odd and creepy as if Lee can be abusive while stone-cold sober with no justification as to why. Lee’s abuse just seems flatly out of nowhere.
There’s another issue, which again is drama that Freundlich raises but doesn’t lead to any further consequence. One of Anthony’s best friends and fellow teammates is Gilbert Wong or Gil, played by Jake Choi (Front Cover). He doesn’t seem to be as good a player or shooter as Anthony, but, during a crucial moment at the end of a game, Anthony passes the ball to Gil. His coach afterwards gets upset that Anthony jeopardized the game, but the message seems to be that Anthony doesn’t want to take all the limelight and that other players like Gil can do well on the court. Yet, this idea is completely abandoned by the end when Anthony professes, “They can’t win without me.”
This kind of reversal would be fine, if the point was for Anthony to learn something about that kind of selfishness or if it revealed something about his character as a result of his experiences in this narrative, but that’s not the case. All of a sudden, Anthony decides that he has to make the final game all about him because his teammates can’t win without him and that’s something to be celebrated, as we disregard Gil or his other best friend and teammate, Hakim, played by Christopher Meyer (Wayward Pines and NCIS: New Orleans). As a result, thematically, the movie feels all over the place and nothing really connects or rings true. There are plenty of films about teenage athletes from Hoop Dreams (1994) to Friday Night Lights (2004) that tackle the issues more effectively.
John Douglas Thompson is a 53-year-old, black-British actor who has been nominated for the Tony Award. Thompson plays a character here named Socrates who Spike Lee would describe as the “magical negro.” He’s nothing but a stereotypical plot-device. As far as plot-devices go, he’s not even a good one. Socrates plays at the West 4th Street Courts. He perhaps recognizes Anthony’s talent during a pick-up game, but Socrates then goes out of his way to be there and mentor this white, privileged kid attending a fancy prep school who’s had both his parents for all his life. I simply didn’t understand why Socrates would go out of his way for this one white kid when there are for sure tons of black kids or kids who are impoverished who could use his help more.
Rated R for language and brief sexuality.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 50 mins.
August 8, 2017 on DVD.