Director unveils his first theatrical release in seven years with Wolves (which premiered at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival), a melodrama of knotty familial angst wherein he returns to similar intergenerational themes seen in his first (and best) film The Myth of Fingerprints (1997). The longtime spouse of Julianne Moore (who has starred in three of his features), Freundlich usually hovers in the comical arena with his films, though often exploring strained relationships, as with his best known adult comedy Trust the Man (2005). Coming off a long stint in television across various projects (including episodes of “Californication” and “Mozart in the Jungle”), his latest focuses on a troubled white middle class family. Subliminal abuses, consuming addictions, and the day-to-day dilemmas involved with the autumn of adolescence for a star high-school basketball player who is finally realizing his parents may be the most dysfunctional people he knows shapes the dramatic crux of Freundlich’s latest screenplay. Lived in performances from expert supporting players like Michael Shannon and Carla Gugino assist in moving this narrative through well-played, if overtly familiar and ultimately predictable beats.
Anthony Keller (Taylor John Smith) is a NYC student revered as the star basketball player at his elite school. The only child of affluent white parents, including his breadwinner father (Michael Shannon), a college professor working on his own novel, and his supportive mother (Carla Gugino), Anthony seems to have a bright future ahead of him. But all’s not well in paradise, as hinted at by his father’s mounting debt due to a gambling addiction, which strains their family dynamic. Anthony’s also beginning to realize his father’s problematic racist and misogynist tendencies, as evidenced by how he speaks of his increasingly distant girlfriend (Zazie Beetz) and several friends. As tensions mount to prove himself to a picky recruiter from Cornell University looking to bestow scholarships on the best and the brightest, his dreams suddenly seem in danger of crumbling, and yet Anthony finds inspiration in some unlikely places.
Wolves kind of plays like the old Karel Reisz drama The Gambler (1974) had its main character had a child, which focused on another schoolteacher addicted to gambling and was scripted by James Toback and starred James Caan in one of his best roles (a poorly mounted 2014 remake starring Mark Wahlberg suffered the usual hang-ups of a glossy Hollywood star vehicle). Michael Shannon has become so adept at playing the brooding, hyper-intelligent authority figure it would be easy to take him for granted here if it weren’t for a few ferocious early sequences, where an amiable family dinner takes a sudden left turn into utter dysfunction then forces its characters to struggle valiantly as they attempt to reset the veneer of normalcy.
As good as Gugino and Shannon are in their contained moments, they support newcomer Taylor John Smith, who provides a solid lead performance, reminiscent of the Ashmore brothers’ early appearances as authentically realized teen characters. Freundlich also gets a lot of mileage out of tense, kinetic moments, whether at the anxiety ridden high-school tournaments or off-the-cuff moments where Anthony becomes embroiled in caustic rivalry on a competitive West 4th Street public basketball court, where his opposition is violent and fierce.
On the down side, nothing about Wolves, including its carnal metaphor of a title, manages to surprise. Dueling patriarchal figures (including John Douglas Thompson as a former basketball player who takes a shine to the protagonist) used for juxtaposition, seem rather illogical, while problematic messages concerning the masculine posturing requiring grueling sacrifice (defined specifically by severe physical and emotional strain in order to achieve success within the homosocial arena) make Freundlich’s film yet another depiction of fading, archaic white patriarchy while also seeming to champion its potency and relevancy.