by George Wolf
Remember that scene near the end of Parenthood, where Grandma compares life to an amusement park ride?
Well, if you add layers of subtlety, a much more intimate focus, and subtract several decades of living, you’ll find yourself near the heart of The Wheel, a surprisingly compelling look at relationship dynamics.
I say “surprising” because films don’t often look to characters this young for hard-won insight.
Walker (Taylor Gray) and Albee (Amber Midthunder from TV’s Legion) met when they were 12, got married at 16, and now 8 years in are close to splitting. In a last ditch effort to patch things up, they retreat to a secluded B&B and promise each other “brutal honesty.”
For Walker, that starts with following the directions of a “save your marriage” self help book. But for Albee, it means mocking that book, her husband, and the very idea that the marriage can be saved.
The film’s early going as a two-hander feels a bit desperate, but director Steve Pink (Hot Tub Time Machine, screenplays for High Fidelity and Grosse Pointe Blank) and writer Trent Atkinson smartly bring in another couple for some important push and pull.
Fortysomethings Carly (Bethany Anne Lind) and Ben (Nelson Lee) run the B&B, and are making final preparations for their own wedding. Despite a longstanding rule to avoid mixing with guests (not to mention Ben’s assessment of Albee as a “monster”), Carly reaches out to the young couple.
The scars revealed are not shocking and the insights less than revelatory, but four terrific performances make it easy to care about these characters, and Pink’s gently assured pace means the eventual catharsis feels more earned than force fed.
But even at its most familiar, the film carries a freshness that comes from never losing empathy for the type of characters generally used as convenient fodder. The Wheel believes in them, and that makes all the difference in the ride.