(Written by Allison Brown)
Few films offer such an emotional impact as TIFF’s un-love story, The Wheel, directed by Steve Pink. Although I have never been married, I can imagine the weight this work would carry for anyone struggling in a complicated marriage or going through a divorce. Amber Midthunder as Albee and Bethany Anne Lind as Carly shine with nuanced performances, carrying a hefty portion of the film. Prior to watching, I did not recall Midthunder’s recurring role in the Roswell, New Mexico reboot or in FX’s Legion, as I slowly lost interest in both shows. Her role in Legion is particularly fitting, as the entire runtime I kept seeing Aubrey Plaza’s mannerisms and style in Midthunder. After this stunning turn, I will definitely be following Amber’s career.
The film opens with a focused shot on Albee’s wedding ring, as Albee and Walker (Taylor Gray) drive up to a remote home (without phone service or wi-fi!) to work on their crumbling marriage. A self-help book with seven questions—one that promises to improve difficulties in marriage with openness and honesty—may hold the key to repair.
Albee, a hopeful actress, and Walker, an efficient woodworker, joined in union at too early an age, merely sixteen, and have been together now for eight years. Albee is a bitter woman constantly on edge, while Walker is relaxed, patient, and loving. She treats him very poorly, and constantly demeans each hopeful word he offers. Together, they endeavored though a difficult childhood in a group home in the foster system, and as a result, were forced to grow up very fast. Albee was eventually adopted, while Walker was not. This was not for the best, as Albee suffered personal trauma at the hands of her foster father. This trauma is not discussed at depth in the film itself, nor between the two lovers.
As they walk up to the cabin, they meet the owners, Carly and Ben (Nelson Lee), who act as a foil to the main couple. The two are engaged to be married and happy as can be. Ben used to be a player, but Carly has seemingly tamed him. It soon becomes clear that these hosts are not the silent kind when Carly says, “you have such a beautiful face—is that what you do in LA?” I laughed out loud at this line. They constantly interfere in Albee and Walker’s affairs: Ben chats up Albee at the bar, while Carly digs deep into Walker’s psyche at the house.
Pink’s juxtaposition of the two couples, Albee and Walker, and Carly and Ben, are compelling as they feed off each other’s struggles, and ultimately affect one another’s relationships. An invite from Carly for a pasta salad lunch, of which neither male partner is fully supportive, sets the ball rolling on the chain of events that follow. As they work together on the steps in the book, they slowly decide whether or not each should remain a pair. Unfortunately, Albee and Walker’s drama rubs off, and exposes some hidden holes in Carly and Ben’s happy relationship.
Repetition is used effectively, with the use of French fries as a lighthearted symbol of joy in their relationship. It was sweet to watch Albee throw fries at Walker’s head in the diner at the beginning, and this demonstrated that they could still have playful moments. Utilizing this symbol with suspense in the final scenes was a wonderful callback. The denouement’s powerful metaphor with a Ferris wheel was absolutely perfect. The anxiety and extreme sadness of each character truly rubbed off; I was lingering on every word. Stay past the credits to make sure you don’t miss the true conclusion!
The Wheel took the audience for a sentimental ride when it premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.