Director Thomas McCarthy (“The Visitor”) has done something highly ironic in his newest conversation piece, “Win Win” — ironic because by virtue of avoiding grandeur, he’s given us something truly grand.

Win Win

At the Michigan
Fox Searchlight

In an even-paced manner that recalls the independent dramedy “Sideways,” McCarthy acquaints us with the everyman life of Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti, “Duplicity”), small-time lawyer by day, high school wrestling coach by night and flat broke regardless. When Flaherty discovers a hidden prodigy in troubled teen Kyle Timmons (newcomer Alex Shaffer), he thinks he’s found the answers to his financial woes and the key to ending his wrestling team’s embarrassing losing streak. But when Kyle’s deadbeat mother shows up to stir up trouble, Flaherty reaches a moral impasse that makes him question his motives for helping Kyle.

Typical light drama? Perhaps, if you change your default notion of “typical.” Though McCarthy avoids the shock-and-awe storytelling of a triumphant sports tale, he also abstains from genre conventions that would have wasted an excellent character piece on mainstream cliché. But before trying to pinpoint exactly what his new film is, it’d be best to first specify everything it isn’t.

Most importantly, it’s not a sports film. It seems like “Remember the Titans” established a modern template that outlined what a good sports film should be, and blockbuster sports films have copied it over and over, in every conceivable way. Instead of mimicking the formulaic, sauntering gait of copycat inspirational films like “The Longshots” and “Miracle,” McCarthy went the way of “The Wrestler” and “Invictus” by using the sports theme as a backdrop for an examination of character.

It’s not what you’d expect from a drama, either, because it’s never quite clear who’s right or wrong. McCarthy levels the playing field between Flaherty (with his questionable legal standards) and his rivalry with Kyle’s mother (with her history of drug abuse and shameless freeloading). In crafting these complex personalities, McCarthy shows us that morality is not a scale that judges the weight of rights and wrongs. He places far more emphasis on a person’s ability to recognize his or her wrongs and make them right, especially when the well-being of others depends on it.

“Win Win” isn’t even a comedy. Most recent comedies — even the easygoing “Sideways” — hyperbolize human speech, thought and behavior until characters are reduced to caricatures. McCarthy fills us with lust for life and laughter, not at the expense of zany sociopaths, but with the authentic quirks of real people.

We chuckle at Kyle, the world-class wrestler, because he’s the epitome of a troubled adolescent — aloof, unexpectedly perceptive and too independent for his own good. We laugh aloud at Kyle’s grandfather Leo (Burt Young, “Kingshighway”), equal parts senility and cogency. Best of all are Flaherty and his coaching friends Terry (Bobby Cannavale, “The Other Guys”) and Steve (Jeffrey Tambor, TV’s “Arrested Development”) and the way they react with deference and awe at Kyle’s uncommon talent, playing every angle for a chance to win the state championship.

But if “Win Win” is not a sports movie, drama or comedy, then what is it? The simple answer is that it’s a movie about life. Sure, the story of a child prodigy has a cinematic quality to it, but Kyle’s success doesn’t depend on whether he wins or loses, only on whether the outcome changes him for the better or destroys him forever.

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