Now that winning means something entirely different these days, I hope a movie like Win Win can remind people what victory truly is. This is a superb movie. Even if you’re not into the plot or the characters, you’ve got to appreciate how well it’s written, just as an exercise.

Mike (Paul Giamatti) is a down-on-his-luck small time lawyer and high school wrestling coach. He decides to become the legal guardian of his client Leo (Burt Young) because he needs the $1500 monthly fee. Then Leo’s grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) shows up. Mike and his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) let Kyle stay with them, because his mom Cindy (Melanie Lynskey) is in rehab. It turns out Kyle is a great wrestler.

That’s a long way to go to get Kyle on the wrestling team, and there are actually more details in the movie. The point is that it’s not some contrived sports movie. It’s a world in progress, where things are already happening when you meet the characters. Mike is on a first name basis with the judge and prosecutor. It’s that kind of town.

Protecting Kyle becomes a real Blind Side on a working class budget. Cindy is shown for what she is, not in any silly manipulative way. She’s just an addict and that’s going to come out after any extended period of time spent with her. You see Mike go through the process of figuring out a strategy for dealing with her. It’s nice that pure reason is the movie’s core value. Writer/director Tom McCarthy lets his characters behave without forcing them to do what the plot needs.

Greco style wrestling is actually exciting. Without any knowledge of the sport, you at least know you don’t want Kyle to ge taken down. Too much of the wrestling happens off camera. They have a few moves, but then it’s just about what the scene needs to be. There’s a feel good match when wimpy Stemler (David Thompson) gets his shot, and an emotional one where Cindy sends Kyle into a rage in the ring.

McCarthy fails on the montage though, just totally fails. For one, there is no training in the montage at all. There isn’t much wrestling either. Mainly they play Wii, hang out and cut down the tree in Mike and Jackie’s yard.

I think McCarthy nailed how kids speak though. All the young characters speak in brief phrases, with an inflection free monotone. It’s the art of ambivalence. The laughs are mild, pleasant but not hilarious. Win Win’s victory is telling a story that evolves out of character and flows. That’s winning.