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Irreconcilable Differences

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TIFF

MOVIE REVIEW
The Wheel (2021)

Director Steve Pink is best known for directing both “Hot Tub Time Machine” movies, but he also wrote the screenplays for “Grosse Pointe Blank” and “High Fidelity.” These movies are all basically about whether John Cusack will stop being a jackass with his friends (or fellow assassins) in order to find the love that’s been right there all along. “The Wheel,” which is Mr. Cusack-free and written by Trent Atkinson, is a smaller but more heartfelt exploration of similar themes. In this case the jackass is a woman and the love is halfway out the door.

Albee (Amber Midthunder) and Walker (Taylor Gray) are both 24, married since they were 16, and miserable. They met in foster care age 12 and have been nearly inseparable since, but things are so rocky between them that Walker has arranged this weekend in an Airbnb up in the mountains outside Los Angeles to see if their marriage can be saved. On arrival, Walker pretends he told Albee there’s no Wi-Fi, which buys him a night on the couch. Their hosts are 30somethings Carly (Bethany Ann Lind) and Ben (Nelson Lee), days away from their own wedding, and struck so forcefully by Albee’s petulance and Walker’s sadness that they both, separately, begin to meddle. At first Albee is glad for their interference, as it’s an excuse not to deal with Walker and the self-help book he’s using as a counsellor. But as Ben’s spitefulness and Carly’s tiresome speeches start to bite, first Albee and then Walker begin turning the tables.

Albee is clearly named after the author of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and there are obvious similarities – the closed location, the core four characters, and a grossly self-involved older couple wreaking havoc on a younger one – but here it’s the younger couple who are quicker to understand, and play, all the angles. From the start Ben and Carly assume there’s nothing Walker or Albee could teach them. But we all know what happens when you assume. Carly, a kind but smug redhead with a firm belief in the correctness of her opinions, is singlehandedly putting together every aspect of their cottagecore wedding. Ben’s only job is to build the altar in the forest clearing where the ceremony will be held, but despite the imminent deadline he hasn’t gotten started. He spends his days smoking weed and running fake errands in town, where he bumps into Albee and makes a contempt-filled pass that she immediately throws in his face. To get his side in first, Ben tells Carly he did it only to test her commitment to Walker, but Albee and the audience know better. Mr. Lee shows us how Ben’s charm and good looks have allowed him to skate through his life, and Ms. Lind gets a couple good scenes where she starts having to confront the reality of what Ben’s emotional laziness will mean in a marriage. It doesn’t help that in the forest clearing, Walker takes one look at the altar’s supplies and schematics and politely points out that they’ve bought the wrong kind of wood for what they want to achieve. Carly minimizes his advice, while Ben is thrilled to devolve himself of responsibility.

Walker is steadfast; loving Albee is the center of his self and the point of this weekend is to get her to understand that. Mr. Gray makes this vulnerability a tremendous strength. But Albee is forever crouching on rocks by the lake in an attempt to get phone signal, or making acid remarks about Carly’s lovely home. It’s to Ms. Midthunder’s credit that Albee’s pain comes through as separate from her true personality – despite her bad behavior, she is self-aware, and aware of the impact her unpleasantness has on others. Ms. Midthunder is superb at embodying the nuances of Albee’s rapidly shifting moods. What is most interesting about Albee is her anger is nothing to do with Walker; it’s about herself. She loves him, and needs him – every time he walks off without her, she frowns and tries to follow – but she’s also very aware that their early marriage means she has little sense of herself without him, and vice versa. And she is not as certain as Walker that this is a good thing. The way in which Mr. Atkinson’s script follows the ebbs and flows of their feelings for each other is painfully realistic, giving this an emotional accuracy not often seen in film. (Long-running TV shows with hours of time to build up a detailed portrait of a marriage, sure. An 83-minute movie, almost never.)

Bella Gonzales’s crisp cinematography never plays favorites; and Neal Wynne’s editing makes it clear where everyone is in relation to the others at all times. It’s not flawless: For a couple of kids whose lousy start in life is so thoroughly established, Walker and Albee are a little too middle-class; and their willingness to be so emotionally open with total strangers is a bit of a stretch – but these are minor quibbles. And these quibbles are blown aside by the final sequence between Albee and Walker on the titular Ferris wheel, a single unbroken five-minute shot during which the entire movie clicks firmly into place. It’s an extraordinary achievement, and pushes “The Wheel” from being a regular relationship drama into a wonderful surprise. It’s rare to see a smaller story about such large issues be so unpredictably alive.

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