The Wheel is a far cry from director Steve Pink’s previous film Hot Tub Time Machine 2, and yet he shows a surprising versatility by going from a hot tub that is also a time machine to a story about two young relationships where one is about to dissolve permanently and the other refusing to acknowledge the cracks beneath the surface. The Wheel is a painfully intimate experience, like intruding on a couple in the middle of a blow-up where you feel like you’re almost being a voyeur into someone else’s pain. But for Pink and his talented cast, this act of looking is a needed confrontation because neither relationship can continue on as they’ve been, and it’s only being forced through the fire of anger and pain that perhaps they can come out stronger or perhaps it’s time to come to an end. Despite some narrative missteps, the emotional core of The Wheel carries it to a powerful conclusion.
Walker (Taylor Gray) and Albee (Amber Midthunder) have been together for six years after getting married when they were only sixteen as a way to escape a horrible foster situation. However, their relationship is at a breaking point with constant fights and Albee wielding her cruelty as a weapon to try and push everyone away from her. Walker, resolved to save the relationship, decides they should take a cabin weekend at an Airbnb where their hosts are engaged couple Carly (Bethany Anne Lind) and Ben (Nelson Lee). As Walker and Albee’s relationship continues to dissolve, Carly and Ben step in to see if they can help mend fences only to discover that their own relationship may not be as sturdy as they once suspected.
In some ways, The Wheel feels like a play. It’s not that Pink’s direction is stagey or confined, but rather it has the intimacy of a black-box performance where everything rests on the actors. They are the core of this movie and you need to buy all the pain and hurt their characters have built up over the course of their relationships. If anything, The Wheel almost seems a little too eager to get into the dissolution, and we’re left to ponder (as are Walker and Albee) if there were ever any good times between them or if it was simply a case of saving each other from a bad situation and now it’s time to acknowledge that the lifeboat of their marriage can’t carry them any further. It’s not an easy concept to wrestle with because we want love to conquer all and sometimes it can’t. That doesn’t mean people are “bad”, but love isn’t some resource where if you simply have enough of it you can surmount any problem.
Watching Walker and Albee come at their relationship from two different angles is fascinating because you have Walker, armed with a relationship book, doing his damndest to save their marriage while Albee, with Midthunder giving a performance that continues to show she’s an electrifying actor with a career worth watching, is all fire and hate. She’s actively trying to push everyone away, and Midthunder doesn’t ask for our sympathy or understanding. She’s cruel, angry, and kind of a terror. “I’m cruel and I know it,” she says at one point, but you can believe that this all comes from a purpose of believing that the only way forward is to sever all connections. Love has become a burden for her, and her only defense is cruelty.
Midthunder, Gray, Lind, and Lee are all fantastic, and the best thing The Wheel does is in letting you buy into each person as an individual. Even in its 83-minute runtime with pacing that feels fairly fast, you still have time to believe in each lead as their own person with their own baggage. These actors and Pink make us believe in these relationships and rather than judge them from our own values, try to respect what these individuals are going through, and that is a towering achievement in the small, intimate scale this film aims to achieve.
If there is one place The Wheel falters is that its plotting, particularly in the second act, doesn’t always work. You basically have to take the leap that not only would your Airbnb hosts try to play marriage counselor to a young couple, but that Walker and Albee would also let them. The film tries to sell it on Albee trying to combust her marriage and a way to hurt some other people as well, but it’s just a slight bridge too far and feels a bit contrived when really both couples are illuminating each other without being forced into a crucible of physical proximity. You don’t need to sit everyone down when the stakes are so clear and the personalities so well-defined.
Some may not go for the level of intimacy The Wheel showcases, but I loved its small scale and total willingness to give itself over to its performers. There’s a massive level of trust given over to these actors, and they do not disappoint in a thoughtful story that explores what happens past romance and love into a landscape that people may not be emotionally equipped to handle. It makes for a film that it’s somber, melancholic, sad, sweet, and emotionally jagged in the best way possible.
The Wheel does not currently have a release date.
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