Human relationships are acts of creation and destruction, experiences of joy and sadness. Cinema has depicted this, losing itself in the sentimental ideas of love as well as the pain it inflicts. Director Steve Pink and screenwriter Trent Atkinson engage with the familiar in their story of Albee (Amber Midthunder) and Walker (Taylor Gray), a young couple who retreat to the mountains to save their fledgling marriage. Their arrival creates tension between their newly engaged Airbnb hosts, Ben (Nelson Lee) and Carly (Bethany Anne Lind).
The Wheel echoes Pink’s screenplay of High Fidelity (2000), about a frustrated and heartbroken record store owner, directed by Stephen Frears and based on Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel of the same name. He also co-wrote the black comedy Grosse Pointe Blank (Armitage, 1997), about a hitman in an existential crisis. He returns to his high school reunion and seeks the forgiveness of his childhood sweetheart whom he abandoned on prom night. In The Wheel, Pink approaches the subject of relationships with a serious contemplation, shedding the skin of humour.
Albee and Walker stir in Ben and Carly’s introspective doubts that create a surprising comparison to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843). The arrival of the pair and the ensuing drama is a forewarning to Ben and Carly about the possible deterioration of their marriage if cracks in their relationship are not acknowledged. It forces the seemingly perfect couple to confront their doubts and reasons why they’re getting married. Albee and Walker serve as the ghosts of the future that warn and enlighten the naïve romantics.
The Wheel is written, directed, and performed with a sensitivity towards its subject. It’s a confrontational piece of filmmaking that speaks about our naïveté to perceive happiness as a black and white concept. A relationship is both happy and sad, joyous and painful. The two couples must learn to ride this changing tide.
The filmmakers provoke viewers to consider if it’s naïve to think of love as permanent. By chasing the idea of happiness are, we settling? Is happiness an act of compromise to spare us from not being loved? Pink and Atkinson don’t offer a concrete opinion, instead, love is both permanent and temporary, and the need to be loved means that some of us settle.
The self-help book Walker brings on their trip is quickly discarded. It serves its purpose, but the journey to save their marriage can only happen if they embrace the unpredictable present. We learn spontaneously, the mind-sprouting ideas that bloom into realisations that shift our perspectives. We learn as we’re influenced by our encounters with other people.
Answering the set of questions from the book that supposedly can fix a marriage is not surprisingly a dead-end. The pair must live and breathe, they must hurt one another to uncover their anxieties and their raw natures. The journey of self-discovery or fixing relationships can be as destructive as it is revitalising. The experiences of the couples warn us that what we fear are the tumultuous experiences in life. But sometimes it’s the situations that appear calmer that we should be wary of because beneath the stillness are often repressed anxieties.
Indeed, Pink and Atkinson focus on a couple trying to save their fledging marriage, but The Wheel’s thematic interests dive into a deeper conversation about human nature. Audiences with no experience of marriage or romantic relationships can identify with the characters because the themes have an interchangeable context. It’s a commentary on the need for to learn to show ourselves and others compassion, understanding, and love. We also need to seek approval within ourselves – not from other people. These are common human anxieties that will resonate, here.
The Wheel is a portrait of the human spirit’s capacity for love and cruelty. Pink and Atkinson understand the need for the narrative to be simple to give space for the emotions and revelations that clutter the story with complications. Some will see themselves in Albee, others in Walker. There comes an uncomfortable moment when we suddenly see a clear semblance of ourselves – our anxieties and flawed natures bared through these fictional characters. It’s a disquieting moment that turns the otherwise pleasant experience on its head.
Scars and wounds are scratched at in The Wheel. As uncomfortable as that is, the power of cinema is to tell a story that’s as much about the audience as it is about the characters.