Reel Reviews | The Wheel (TIFF ’21)

by Jared Mobarak | The Film Stage

Despite only being 24 years old, Walker (Taylor Gray) and Albee (Amber Midthunder) head into the woods from their Los Angeles existence to try to save their eight-year marriage (for more context, they’re from Texas).

Well, he’s trying to save their marriage. To look at their interactions is to wonder why Albee hadn’t left years ago. We catch glimpses of a smile every now and then, but mostly her head is buried in her phone or coldly lamenting why Walker has taken her to the middle of nowhere to read a self-help book that she doesn’t believe can fix what’s broken. And maybe his desire to try is less about optimism than it is delusion. Maybe their union isn’t what’s broken; it’s them. To fix that means confronting even worse pain.

Director Steve Pink and screenwriter Trent Atkinson know the willingness to actually confront it is virtually non-existent in situations like this. They know Albee’s anger and self-sabotage (stemming from an abusive foster home) will always prevent her from meeting Walker halfway, and that his acceptance of that fact will ultimately lead her to finally agree just when it’s too late. These characters are on exact opposite trajectories wherein their overlap is but the split-second as they pass each other by. It becomes a double-helix of sorts—one desperately seeking to repair just when the other stops seeing the point. On and on it goes until one of them breaks free and leaves or stops. Their pain either brings them closer or tears them apart.

Does that constitute a cycle? I guess the repetition would. Even so, The Wheel of the title is more about a destination—namely the Ferris wheel set-up just outside the camp site run by Carly (Bethany Anne Lind) and Ben (Nelson Lee) that Walker hopes to ride when he and Albee patch things up. It also becomes a sort of isolation chamber where the two might just be able to finally be honest without the threat of embarrassment that comes from airing grievances in public. Because being alone isn’t necessarily in the cards once Carly notices the trouble they’re having. She’d like to help them fix things so they can find the happiness she and Ben share. Except—not surprisingly—that happiness isn’t quite so perfect either.

The resulting storytelling is hardly unique. Depressed couple meets happy couple and that which they see in each other finds a way to bring out truths they’ve been actively avoiding for too long. Atkinson writes things so heavy-handed that you wonder how both Walker and Albee could ever reconcile, how Carly and Ben could ever dissolve, but we intellectually know that’s where things must head. That doesn’t mean the former couple will find their love and the latter will lose theirs—just that the possibility of those conclusions must be floated for there to be any reason for us to care about the quartet. We need the potential for change even if it doesn’t arise; that potential will invariably help them at least recognize their own instability.

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