Writer-director Tom McCarthy gives us stories of the families we choose. In “The Station Agent” and “The Visitor” the main characters were loners who found themselves unexpectedly drawn into caring for people who were very far outside their usual circles. In this, McCarthy gives us a man who already has a loving, stable family and a best friend (“The Station Agent’s” Bobby Cannavale) and is under enormous stress trying to take care of everyone. But he, too ends up meeting someone who at first seems a threat, then a burden, and then, somehow, family.
Paul Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, a lawyer with a solo practice that is not bringing in the money he needs for repairs at the office and at home. Most of his clients are indigent but Leo, a man in the early stages of dementia (“Rocky’s” Burt Young), has a comfortable bank account. In a guardianship proceeding, Mike impulsively has himself appointed as guardian so that he can get the fee. Then he puts Leo in an assisted living facility, contrary to his assurances at the hearing that he would keep Leo in his own home.
Mike did not know that Leo had any relatives. But a teenage grandson who has never seen Leo turns up. His name is Kyle (newcomer Alex Shaffer). He has dyed blonde hair and he smokes. His mother, Leo’s daughter, is in rehab and he has come to stay with Leo. Mike and his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) reluctantly take him in. Mike coaches the high school wrestling team part-time. Kyle turns out to be an exceptional wrestler. He begins to work out with the team.
There is a wonderful decency, naturalism, and humanity to this story, thanks to a sensitive script and superb performances. Ryan and Giamatti have the rhythms of a long-married couple, with a real sense of established teamwork, and appreciation. Her “what is that?” expression and his “it’s okay and under control” gesture to her are eloquent in conveying their depth of trust and understanding. The look on Mike’s face when he wishes Kyle luck in keeping his secrets reflects more than a decade of seeing her ability to get the truth out of anyone. And yet Mike himself is keeping bigger and bigger secrets from Jackie. He thought it would not hurt anyone. But there really isn’t any such thing as win-win. Someone always pays a price.
Parents should know that this film has some very strong language and tense family confrontations. Characters drink, a character has a drug abuse problem, and a teenager smokes.
Questions for families: How does Kyle’s approach to wrestling apply to others in the movie? What made Mike and Jackie change their minds about Kyle? Do you agree with Mike’s choice at the end?
If you like this, try: “The Visitor” and “The Station Agent.”