The Wheel, 2021.
Directed by Steve Pink.
Starring Amber Midthunder, Taylor Gray, Bethany Anne Lind, and Nelson Lee.
Walker and Albee were thrown together in a children’s group home and quickly became inseparable. When they married at the tender age of 16, Albee was rescued from her rough foster family. It’s now eight years later and they are on the brink of divorce, despite being the only family either of them has ever known.
Filmmaker Steve Pink (Accepted, Hot Tub Time Machine) returns with his first feature film in six years, which takes a sharp left-turn from the comedy work that’s defined his career to deliver a compellingly low-key relationship drama.
Twenty-somethings Walker (Taylor Gray) and Albee (Amber Midthunder) have been married for eight years, having grown up together in a group home where each found solace in the other. Today, the pair seem bound for divorce, and in a last-ditch attempt to save their marriage, Walker brings Albee to a tranquil rural Airbnb getaway where he hopes a self-help book will provide the resolution they need.
“Fixing your marriage is so much fun,” Albee sarcastically quips in the early going, laying bare her prickly demeanour from the outset. This is juxtaposed with Walker’s more compliant, submissive attitude, keen to hand-wave Albee’s caustic put-downs even at their most hurtful. It isn’t long before Walker and Albee’s relationship woes catch the attention of their Airbnb hosts Carly (Bethany Anne Lind) and Ben (Nelson Lee), who are soon preparing to marry yet aren’t quite as perfect a couple as they might at first seem.
Over the course of the getaway, both couples re-examine the worth and utility of their relationships. What at first smacks of a more twee take on Blue Valentine quickly reveals itself to be a less-quirky, more thoughtful meditation on the human moments, both happy and sad, that comprise the enormity of romantic love.
Trent Atkinson’s screenplay notes how seemingly benign differences in personal values can slowly drive a wedge between a couple, and how a traumatic past can leave lingering scars that make sustained connection difficult. Audiences may find themselves going back on forth on whether or not Walker and Albee’s marriage is even worth fighting for, such is its bipolar nature, defined as much by shouting matches as tender embraces.
Despite its intimate stakes, there’s an agreeably laid-back pace to Pink’s film, refusing to cram excess incident and melodrama into its scant 83-minute runtime. Nor is it really straining to say anything particularly profound about love, simply painting an evocative portrait of a couple’s attempt to possibly, maybe reignite the dying embers of their relationship born from shared dire circumstances.
Even in its least ambitious moments, this is a film held up by the transfixing work of its cast. As the unassailable MVP, Amber Midthunder makes Albee a believably standoffish and often quite cruel person whose troubled past leaves her unable to believe that another could genuinely love her. As Walker, Taylor Gray is an affecting sketch of a well-intended young man whose own optimism threatens to be his very undoing.
Together, their chemistry is spectacular, whether they’re squabbling loudly, talking things out tearfully, or even enjoying a fleetingly cute interaction. So authentic does their erratic relationship feel that it would’ve been incredibly easy to spend much more time with these characters.
As their hosts, Bethany Anne Lind and Nelson Lee get the naturally less-meaty of the four parts, but Carly and Ben serve as an easy counter-point to Walker and Albee’s relationship; more outwardly functional but not without their own issues re: commitment and maturity. There’s a great mid-film scene where the four sit down to air all their dirty laundry with their partners in some sort of twisted, ill-advised group therapy exercise.
Without going into too much detail, the film’s cornerstone sequence is undeniably its brilliantly wrought final passage, a roughly 10-minute single take scene as Walker and Albee make an ultimate decision about their relationship while riding a Ferris wheel. It’s an inspired choice by Pink, and ensures the film ends at both an emotional and stylistic peak.
Though Pink’s previous films haven’t painted him as much of a fussy stylist, The Wheel is a robustly mounted picture, making the most of the shooting location’s picturesque scenery, courtesy of DP Bella Gonzales, who makes a cosy feature lensing debut. Add to this a soothing ambient score from Matt Beckley and a bevy of syrupy yet well-placed music tracks to bolster the mood.
This sentimental but affecting relationship drama glides on the strength of its central acting quartet – especially a terrific Amber Midthunder.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.