The Wheel: TIFF21 Review
Young love is one of the cruellest sensations we can experience. The ignorance of youth twists even the purity of cupids bow into a ticking time bomb, preparing to turn lust to ash and joy to tears. However, a select few find destiny doesn’t want them to follow such a path, for they have the blessing of what the dreamers call true love. Cinema is enamoured with this concept — the idea of two people being star-crossed baffles many of cinema’s greats, and countless films poignantly explore how true love is and isn’t possible. Steve Pink’s latest feature, The Wheel, is one such endeavour to delve into this realm as he tackles the marriage troubles of Albee (Amber Midthunder) and Walker (Taylor Gray), a pair of 24-year-olds who married when they were 16 in Texas. So, it’s safe to say this new ground for the director of Hot Tub Time Machine.
We meet Albee and Walker as they sit on the precipice of their lives falling apart. They are driving up into picturesque mountains as conversation reveals the two are taking their trip to try and save their marriage. Upon arriving at their Airbnb, they meet the only other two characters of importance, Carly (Bethany Anne Lind) and Ben (Nelson Lee), a slightly older couple just about to tie the knot. The second they meet, Albee abruptly informs Carly why they are in town and so begins her plans to try and keep the couple together; because if there’s one way to describe Carly, it’s as a dreamer.
But of course, things don’t go to the way she’d hoped, and the troubles between Albee and Walker prove to cut deep, and all the while, cracks form in Carly’s perception of Ben. This is all presented as the quartet revolves around one another; Ben meets Albee in a bar, Walker offers to help Carly build the altar for her wedding. In these little moments, you begin to feel the raw sadness of The Wheel. Walker is the sweetest, most loving protagonist I have seen in a long time, and next to him, Albee is only a cruel and broken husk who has forgotten, or never even truly knew, how to love. Their tragedy juxtaposed against Carly and Ben’s disintegrating happiness almost makes for something too melodramatic. But with a steadiness we have yet to see from him before, Pink plants a flag on his uneven ground and says yes, he will break our hearts, but maybe he’ll put them back together too.
From here, they come together in an explosion and things spiral to the conclusion where the pairs face their ultimatums. In between are one or two very effective needle drops, and a limitless amount of outstanding cinematography by Bella Gonzales, with a special mention deservedly going to the titular Ferris wheel, which is gorgeous.
What I can say without offering spoilers is that the performances are incredibly moving. Midthunder walks the tightest rope of all four as Albee digs her toxic claws into almost every scene, but the person underneath still shines through when she needs to. When this occurs, her performance becomes one of brilliantly subtle complexity. On the other hand, Lind and Lee are called upon to offer some very different elements to the picture. Carly represents everyone who wants true love but isn’t sure if they can ever find it and Lind wholly encompasses her with a great sympathy that shines throughout, especially when she’s trying to help Walker. Ben is very much the other side of the coin, he’s nowhere and everywhere simultaneously, and it becomes abundantly clear he doesn’t know what he wants. It’s almost scary how well Lee pulls this off as he slowly reveals more and more about Ben’s true nature.
But it is Gray who steals the show. You can’t help but feel for Walker. At every turn, it never seems like he is doing anything other than loving Albee. And this isn’t an obsessive thing; he’s not creepy about it. He’s pure and loving and kind. He’s just doing what anyone would do, taking his last chance to win back the love of his life because he believes down to his soul his young love was true. Gray paints all this passionately across the screen, and in the final scene alongside Midthunder, they tare your heart from your chest, cementing theirs as fantastic performances.
The Wheel is a moving inspection of the complexities of love that succeeds in no small part thanks to the immense talent of its cast.