When contemplating filmmakers who would attempt to tackle a low-key relationship drama like The Wheel, Steve Pink is probably not the first name to come to mind. Granted, the man did help to co-write two of the defining comedies of the late-’90s/early 2000s — Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity, respectively — but he is probably best known for helming Hot Tub Time Machine, a film more famous for its ridiculous title than anything of note therein. He also has the not-bad Accepted and better-than-expected About Last Night remake under this belt, so perhaps all of the jokes and ridicule are undeserved; one stupidly-titled project does not a filmography make. If anything, The Wheel proves that Pink does indeed possess some range as a director, reigning in his usual schtick for an occasionally thoughtful portrait of one young couple attempting to tackle their severe marital issues during a weekend stay in the mountains. Walker (Taylor Gray) is puppy-dog sweet and loyal to a fault; Albee (Amber Midthunder) is cold, sarcastic, and lacking in anything resembling empathy. The two will attempt to reach some sort of middle-ground through a self-help book that requires them to address seven essential questions regarding their marriage, although the answer seems rather obvious: they were too young when they got hitched (“We were 16. It was Texas.”), and now, eight years later, they are forced to confront their childhood stupidity. Meanwhile, the couple’s marital woes force their temporary neighbors and the owners of the cabin, engaged couple Carly (Bethany Anne Lind) and Ben (Nelson Lee), to take stock of their own relationship issues, as their seemingly idyllic union starts to show cracks.
The Wheel is a film that strives for realism when it comes to its central couple, yet it’s that same authenticity that makes for such grueling company with these folks. Within the first ten minutes of the film, Albee is described by various people as “a dick,” “a bitch,” and “an asshole,” and yet these descriptors still don’t do justice to just how unpleasant this particular character can be, and what a chore it is to spend time in her presence. There is, naturally, a tragic backstory, one that is laid out fairly early, but the character is presented as so merciless and cruel that empathy proves nearly impossible. Walker is fairly bland, for his part, and the character is blandly rendered and barely compelling, while the entire subplot with the neighbors feels superfluous at best, existing only for cheap irony — first-time screenwriter Trent Atkinson should have gone for a two-hander here. But then something rather surprising happens in the last act of The Wheel. Employing an eight-minute long-take on the titular carnival ride, Walker and Albee are finally forced to confront their various issues, leading to tear-stained admissions and expressions of fear and guilt that wouldn’t feel out of place in the later chapters of the Before trilogy, and these two-dimensional characters finally begin to click into focus. Does the actual ending hedge its bets? Perhaps, but it feels notably more earned than in other films of this ilk, and the fact that this sequence is likely to ping-pong a healthy number of viewers between tears and smiles in under a minute is certainly an accomplishment. Backed by sturdy, no-frills direction, The Wheel proves that Pink is capable of more than just frat-boy hijinks. The ride isn’t always smooth, but the ultimate destination suggests that Pink may still yet be worth following to future destinations.
Published as part of Toronto International Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 2.