When the aliens arrive on this planet and ask us to explain what "indie film" is, may I suggest we show them something by Tom McCarthy? His previous two movies, The Station Agent and The Visitor, are both standouts of the genre without standing apart from it in any way. Actually, we might as well screen for them the new McCarthy picture, Win Win, which includes every significant indie-film hallmark: There's an imperfect but loving nuclear family; a series of petty frustrations played for empathetic comedy; an unlikely bond between a frayed, middle-aged man and a silent teenager; and a quiet epiphany in the final shots—nothing earth-shattering, just a little internal shift, expressed without words. There's also the one thing indie film does best: The recognition that worries about bills are a big motivation in everyday lives. There's Amy Ryan and Paul Giamatti. There's a scene in which Giamatti has a panic attack while jogging, and admits to his buddy that he's seen a doctor about his anxiety, and his friend asks, "Did he prescribe anything for you?" Giamatti says, "Yeah, jogging." Indie film, ladies and gentlemen!

Giamatti plays Mike, a New Jersey elder law attorney and high-school wrestling coach who volunteers to become guardian for senile client Leo (Burt Young, very touching in the role), mostly so he can deposit the old man in the nursing home he dreads, then pocket the state checks. This is a venal sin, but a really shitty one. Mike's bad deed is rewarded with the arrival of Leo's laconic runaway grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer), who turns out to be a champion high-school wrestler. This is perhaps one coincidence too many for the movie to bear, but Shaffer's presence redeems a lot: His blond shag of hair, long face and collected indifference recall Sean Penn's Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

That may seem a lowbrow connection, but I suspect McCarthy's aware of it: Ridgemont was a very populist comedy that secretly cared about disappointment and failure, and Win Win is a drama about disappointment and failure that secretly wants to be a very populist comedy. It truly loves sports, and not just as a life metaphor (though certainly as a life metaphor). It has an explosively funny performance by Bobby Cannavale as Mike's best friend and bandwagon assistant coach, who is prone to accidentally homoerotic remarks. It even has an apparently sincere montage set to Jersey band Bon Jovi's wondrously terrible 2005 single "Have a Nice Day." Halfway through Win Win, Mike gives his wrestling team instructions based on Kyle's favored mat strategy: "The move is, whatever the fuck it takes!" Again, this is a pretty obvious life metaphor (again, this is an indie movie), but it also represents McCarthy's willingness to go all out to entertain. If we show this flick to the aliens, they'll put away their ray guns—they'll be too busy rooting for everybody to be OK. Indie film, ladies and gentlemen! R.

81 SEE IT: Win Win opens Friday at Fox Tower.