The Wheel begins, as so many other movies do, with a couple driving to a cabin in the woods. He’s conciliatory but increasingly frustrated; she’s sullen, more focused on her phone than the scenery. The trip is a last-ditch effort to save their eight-year marriage, not that she seems all that optimistic about their prospects. They’re greeted at their Airbnb by a host who might be a bit too friendly, at least for the wife’s taste.
It’s a setup that primes us for the possibility of big reveals to come, whether of the sci-fi and horror variety or of the kind that end in tearful secrets and screaming matches. But though there are some of the latter, padded with some mild red herrings, the biggest surprise of all turns out to be just how effectively The Wheel ramps up its bittersweet emotions. Not everything about the film clicks — even on a second viewing, armed with a better understanding of the characters at its core, its first act comes off more cryptic than seems strictly necessary — but it can’t be faulted for lack of feeling.
The Bottom Line
Prickly relationship drama reveals hidden depths.
At first, however, The Wheel mostly just seems sour. While Albee (Amber Midthunder) shows flashes of tenderness and worry toward Walker, she spends most of her time in a shell so prickly that she can come across as downright monstrous. Walker (Taylor Gray), Albee’s husband, spends so much time begging her to try to engage in the exercises they’ve planned to bring them closer together that it’s difficult to fathom why they haven’t cut each other loose already.
The recently engaged host couple, Carly (Bethany Anne Lind), a kindly girl-next-door type, and Ben (Nelson Lee), a handsome ex-musician, initially appear to be on much firmer ground. But it doesn’t take a genius to figure that Albee and Walker’s drama will start to reveal fault lines between Carly and Ben as well — especially once Carly extends the younger couple a lunch invitation over Ben’s objections, in hopes that she can help them heal. Before they know it, the meal has turned into the double date from hell, as the four tear into one another over an uncomfortably personal question from Walker’s relationship self-help book.
The Wheel borders on frustrating in its first half, as it appears the obvious solution for all these people’s problems is simply for everyone to mind their own business and go their separate ways. (Trent Atkinson’s script seems particularly unaware that Carly’s “saving-people bullshit,” as Ben rudely puts it, crosses over from saintly to unseemly.) But well-placed backstory and a mid-movie breaking point reshuffle the dynamic between the characters, stripping away the personas they present to each other and the world to uncover the devastating truths underneath them. Even the seemingly broken relationship between Albee and Walker proves to be immeasurably more complicated than it looks at first blush.
Director Steve Pink, better known for broad comedies like the Hot Tub Time Machine movies, favors a handheld camera here that emphasizes intimacy and raw emotion even when the characters would rather shy away, and soft natural lighting that tempers their harshest moments. All his leads benefit from his close attention, but none more than Midthunder, whose anxious body language gives away the insecurity and vulnerability that Albee so desperately tries to cover with cruelty. The second half of The Wheel, and particularly its riveting final scene, belongs to her performance, which is as painful to look at as an open wound.
With just a handful of locations, a cast of less than half a dozen major characters, and stakes no bigger than the happiness (or at least OK-ness) of characters we met 82 minutes ago, the film feels tiny in some ways. But it packs an emotional punch, made all the more powerful by a rather un-Hollywood refusal put a tidy bow on much of anything or even to suggest that such a thing might ever be possible. The Wheel may not, well, reinvent the wheel. But in its expansive empathy, it delivers something that nevertheless feels new and surprising.