Scientific research tells us that nearly all of the cells in the human body are renewed every seven years. Personally, I like to think that explains the “seven-year itch,” the phenomenon by which so many of us change jobs, friends and such on a predictable cycle: because you’re literally not the same person anymore.
It’s been eight years since Albee (Amber Midthunder) and Walker (Taylor Gray) got married, and their relationship is running on fumes. A surprisingly serious-minded drama from “Hot Tub Time Machine” helmer Steve Pink (who co-wrote Gen X John Cusack romances “Grosse Pointe Blank” and “High Fidelity”), no-frills indie “The Wheel” follows this couple on a weekend retreat to a remote Airbnb, where the pair plan to hash things out once and for all.
Walker has brought along a self-help book, “Seven Questions to Save Your Marriage.” Albee says she’s game, but seldom looks away from her iPhone. Every time he makes an effort, she rolls her eyes and says something sarcastic or mean. The hostile young woman berates her husband for being too “nice,” unable to accept his affection as sincere (“How can you love this?” she asks at one point). Albee’s every comment is designed to push Walker away, as if provoking him to break up.
By the time the end credits roll, this seemingly doomed couple will either have parted ways or decided to double down and work on their issues. Neither ending is necessarily a happy one, but like “The Graduate,” this film — written by Trent Atkinson, whose insights reveal themselves in unpredictable yet true ways over the film’s short running time — believes that audiences are grown up enough to recognize that relationships take effort. As such, the last frame of the movie is no guarantee of how things will play out in the long run (a word of advice: stay through the credits).
Testy conversations between Albee and Walker reveal that these two met as kids in the foster system and got hitched at 16, hoping it would protect them from the trauma. Albee was abused in some form, and Walker swore he’d save her. You can’t entirely blame her for being difficult, but boy, is she a tough one to love.
“The Wheel” is perfectly suited for mumblecore fans, who will appreciate the following comparison: Think of Walker as a Mark Duplass type. He’s softer and more sensitive than most guys, in touch with his tears and unashamed of his emotions. Albee gives off strong Aubrey Plaza vibes, her body language projecting a kind of keep-away ambivalence. She can’t help being cruel, and the sweeter Walker behaves toward her, the more Albee seems determined to rile him. Just once, she’d like to see him get as angry as she feels all the time.
Maybe this weekend trip will be the ticket. It’s certainly a convenient setup for a movie made during the pandemic. (“The Wheel” makes no mention of COVID, so one can watch without thinking the setup is any more unusual than cabin-in-the-woods indies “Your Sister’s Sister” or “Baghead.”) Once they reach the rental, their well-meaning host, Carly (Bethany Anne Lind), picks up on the tension right away and ill-advisedly decides to play couples therapist.
Carly is about to get married to boyfriend Ben (Nelson Lee). These two sound more idealistic about love, though interacting with Albee and Walker will inevitably put a strain on their relationship as well. It’s a good idea on Atkinson’s part to include a second couple, à la “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” lest audiences assume the central pair are meant to represent the film’s views on all men and women. (This script is nowhere near as sharp as that landmark American play, but it’s hard to imagine naming the character “Albee” was a coincidence.)
Pink, a veteran TV director who takes a rather self-important “a film by” credit on what feels like a first feature (it’s his fifth), shows almost no intuition for how to block or shoot a scene, inserting songs where silence would have been more effective. His clumsiness leaves the actors looking slightly amateurish, despite the strong, vulnerable performances they deliver. It all builds to a gutsy (if contrived) 10-minute shot on a Ferris wheel, where Albee and Walker sit side by side, facing the camera, trying to decide the fate of their marriage. Round and round and round she goes, and where she stops nobody knows.