There's a tried-and-true formula that has worked for many a sports-centric family drama: Local kid overcomes adversity off the court (or field, or track — you name it) and rises above it all for the love of the game. Despite some spectacular performances and equally compelling basketball scenes, writer/director Bart Freundlich's Wolves sticks too closely to that playbook.
Anthony (Taylor John Smith) benevolently rules his high school basketball team -- he's a jock with a heart of gold and his eyes set on Cornell. But, wouldn't you know, he's got problems at home that bleed (sometimes literally) onto the court and put his scholarship in jeopardy. His biggest burden is a hard-drinking, hard-ass father (Michael Shannon) with a knack for betting -- and busting up anything that gets in his way. Shannon brings spark to his bleak role, sparring with equal parts ferocious charm and brute force with the family, including Carla Gugino as the worried mother.
Bolstered by tough love from new mentor Socrates (John Douglas Thompson) -- a former pro player and the Bagger Vance of the West 4th Street Courts -- Anthony finds his groove. In the end, Smith channels his character's nickname ("Saint") and does lots of heavy lifting, both emotionally and with his actual basketball skills.
A feel-good Friday Night Lights with layups Wolves ain't. There's real turmoil in Freundlich's script (abuse, a crumbling marriage, pregnancy) but the problems sometimes seem tacked on for added crisis. One of the film's coaches says it best: They don't want players who will fit in, they want ones who will stand out -- but Wolves blends in with the pack.