‘The Wheel’ review: Amber Midthunder and Taylor Gray bring this relationship drama to life | TIFF 2021

Good drama almost always thrives when you stick a few people in a secluded cabin and ask them to sort out their relationship issues. Of course, that means your dialogue must be sharp and your leads sharper—there’s a lot of history to contend with inside these four walls or in a canoe or going round and round on a ferris wheel. The Wheel, written by Trent Atkinson and directed by Steve Pink, has some of these things, but an engaging last scene makes it worth it. 

When we first meet Albee (Amber Midthunder) and her husband Walker (Taylor Gray,) they’re traveling to an Airbnb cabin to fix their marriage. Married eight years, this young couple are clearly of different minds about the trip. Walker is optimistic, Albee reluctant, seemingly more interested in her phone than why this trip is necessary. When they arrive, they meet Carly (Bethany Anne Lind) and Ben (Nelson Lee,) the recently engaged Airbnb hosts who are quick to label Albee the mean, inconsiderate one, and Walker the sweet, naive one. 

This dynamic plays out in increasingly awkward situations—Ben and Carly are clearly so insecure about their own relationship that they keep interfering and trying to fix Albee and Walker’s. At times, the dialogue is stiff and surface-level, quickly moving from one conflict to another. This causes each couple’s conflicts with each other to feel underdeveloped. Because the tension is so quick to establish itself, it’s difficult to ascertain why these couples were together in the first place; without that understanding, caring about their fallout becomes moot. 

This is the case moreso between Carly and Ben. With very little time to get to know them before Albee and Walker show up, their fights and seemingly disregard for each other is not nearly as engaging as it should be. As a recently engaged couple, they’re supposed to be a foil to Albee and Walker—a bit older, a fresh relationship—but there’s no initial spark between them, nothing to grab onto that makes their fallout prompt any empathy from us. 

Midthunder and Gray really sell the weaker points of the script, delivering the more stiff dialogue with more emotion than it deserves. While Carly and Ben do uncover some truth behind Albee and Walker’s issues, sometimes it’s nice to just see a break in a relationship be about how much they can’t stand each other sometimes. There doesn’t have to be one big, dramatic thing that happened. Albee’s allowed to just be petty and mean, but Midthunder infuses those moments with hidden vulnerability, right until it absolutely needs to come to the surface. Walker, on the other hand, wears his heart on his sleeve, but there’s anger bubbling, and it’s in Walker’s quieter moments that Gray really shines. 

The final scene is The Wheel’s true moment of glory, where the dialogue and the emotion between the characters matches perfectly. While a lot of The Wheel is exposition heavy, this extended last scene allows Midthunder and Gray to pour every ounce of what Albee and Walker have wanted to say or couldn’t say throughout the film. Earlier, when conflicts seemed to breeze by, this one just lets us sit and stew in it, and it’s delicious. 

The Wheel has plenty of underdeveloped moments, but it’s focus on a couple learning how to love each other again eight years down the line makes it well worth it, with engaging lead performances from Midthunder and Gray.

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