I used to be a high school English teacher, mostly because it made me a front-line soldier in the war against the misuse of apostrophes. But also because I really like teenagers; they’re so close to being human beings, but with a wonderful kind of stupidity that intrigues me. My favorite students were the kids who, like me in high school, had heard the “you don’t live up to your full potential” speech more than a few times.

So I felt a special affection for Kyle, the character played by Alex Shaffer in “Win Win,” above. Through a series of coincidences, Kyle ends up a surrogate member of the Flaherty family, helmed by Paul Giamatti and Amy Ryan. Shaffer had no acting experience prior to the film; in fact, director Tom McCarthy had to bring in an acting coach. I’m not sure how much work the coach had to do, because Shaffer’s portrayal is so absolutely spot-on. Kyle is a troubled kid — addict mom, absentee dad — but someone clearly did something right, as he says “please” and “thank you” and asks whether it’s OK for him to smoke inside the house. When he’s told he shouldn’t smoke, he politely says, “I know. But if I DID …” He rarely smiles, but when he does, it’s such a surprise, you can’t help but smile, too.

I have no idea whether Shaffer plans to do anything else, career-wise. But his performance here is so sharply perfect, I’m not sure I want him to.

Photo by Kimberly Wright