Review: ‘The Wheel’ (2022), starring Amber Midthunder and Taylor Gray

August 22, 2022

by Carla Hay

Amber Midthunder and Taylor Gray in “The Wheel” (Photo courtesy of Quiver Distribution)

“The Wheel” (2022)

Directed by Steve Pink

Culture Representation: Taking place in California, the dramatic film “The Wheel” has a racially diverse cast of characters (Native American, white, Asian and multiracial) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A married couple, contemplating divorce after eight years of marriage, will decide if they will split up or stay together during a getaway retreat.

Culture Audience: “The Wheel” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in authentic-looking relationship dramas with characters who are neurotic.

Nelson Lee and Bethany Anne Lind in “The Wheel” (Photo courtesy of Quiver Distribution)

“The Wheel” thinly stretches the “will they or won’t they break up” dilemma for the movie’s central married couple, until the movie’s very last scene, which is the best part of the film. This relationship drama is mostly well-acted but very repetitive. Despite its shortcomings, “The Wheel” at least realistically depicts people and relationships as sometimes messy and flawed.

Directed by Steve Pink and written by Trent Atkinson, “The Wheel” had its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. The movie’s title could be inspired by the pivotal last scene, which takes place when the two spouses have an emotionally charged conversation on a Ferris wheel. However, the title of “The Wheel” could also refer to the seemingly endless cycle of dysfunction and anguish that can happen if people fail to communicate properly in relationships.

That’s why this question is presented throughout the film: “Will anyone in this couple want to stay in this marriage, which keeps going around in circles of arguments and misunderstandings?” The movie’s opening scene shows married couple Albee (played by Amber Midthunder) and Walker (played by Taylor Gray) having just such an argument.

Albee and Walker, who are both about 24 years old, live in California, where the movie was filmed on location in Angelus Oaks and Malibu. Albee is an aspiring actress, while Walker’s job is not stated in the movie. Walker and Albee later tell someone that they got married at age 16, and have been married for eight years.

Why did they get married so young? Walker and Albee, who are both originally from Texas, both grew up fast in the foster-care system. They no doubt married each other to feel like they could have some kind of stable family life that they didn’t have as foster kids.

And now, the marriage of Albee and Walker has reached a critical point. The movie’s opening scene shows Albee telling Walker that she’s irritated by him when they are somewhere outdoors. Walker says he doesn’t know why she’s angry with him, but that he’s sorry for whatever he did.

This apology just makes Albee even more upset, because she thinks Walker should know what made her angry in the first place. Albee doesn’t want to explain it all to Walker. She thinks part of the problem is that he’s completely unaware of what he did to offend her. The argument continues when Albee and Walker are seated at a table in a diner.

Eventually, Albee and Walker call a tentative truce in this argument. However, this argument is an indication of how Albee and Walker interact with each other for most of the movie. Albee expects Walker to read her mind and know instinctively how to make her happy. Walker wants to make Albee happy, but she doesn’t express to him that she loves him as much as he loves her.

Walker is an optimist about love and wants to save the marriage. Albee is a pessimist and is more reluctant to stay married to Walker, but she’s also afraid of being alone and getting hurt by divorce. Albee gives Walker the impression that she’s possibly fallen out of love with him, while he’s still in love with Albee and wants to bring back the romantic passion in their marriage.

Eventually, Albee and Walker decide to go to a getaway retreat, by renting a cabin in the woods. Before taking this trip, Walker and Albee agree that they will decide the fate of their marriage during this retreat. They also vow to be completely honest with each other, regardless if what they have to say is good or bad. Walker has recently bought a relationship self-help book, and he wants to use the book’s advice with Albee during this trip.

Albee and Walker have rented the cabin through Airbnb. The cabin’s Airbnb hosts are an engaged couple in their 30s named Carly (played by Bethany Anne Lind) and Ben (played by Nelson Lee), who are staying at a nearby cabin and at first seem to have an idyllic relationship. Soon after Walker and Albee arrive at the cabin, they both meet Carly, who welcomes Albee and Walker in a friendly manner. However, Carly can’t help but notice the tension between Walker (who is polite to Carly) and Albee (who is standoffish to Carly) as soon as Carly meets them.

Carly mentions that she hopes that Albee and Carly will find the cabin ambience to be romantic during the couple’s stay, but Albee comes right out and tells Carly that Albee and Walker have taken this getaway trip to decide if their marriage is worth saving. It’s an awkward moment, but it sparks curiosity in Carly to try to help Albee and Walker. Carly takes it upon herself throughout most of the story to be an unofficial relationship counselor to these two strangers.

Albee is immediately annoyed when she finds out that the cabin has no WiFi service, and she can’t get a signal on her cell phone. She goes outside and is elated when she’s able to get a phone signal. Walker can’t help but notice that Albee has been excitedly communicating with someone by text when she begins using her phone. It’s eventually revealed who this mystery person is.

On the first night that Albee and Walker stay at the cabin, she smokes a marijuana joint in a sauna and seems skeptical when Walker says, “If we can get through these last few months, we can get through anything.” Albee asks, “We’ll be okay though, right?” Walker senses Albee’s lack of interest in talking about their relationship in a meaningful way, so Walker leaves the room without answering the question.

Later, Albee rebuffs Walker’s advances to be sexually intimate. She tells a dejected Walker, “I’m not there. Sorry.” Walker says, “That’s okay. Sleep tight.” The movie keeps showing over and over that Walker wants to offer love, respect and passion to Albee, but she keeps rejecting him at every turn.

Carly has noticed this imbalance in the relationship too. On the first night that Albee and Walker are in the cabin, Carly tells Ben what was her first impression of Albee and Walker. Carly says that Walker seems nice, but Carly thinks that Albee is the kind of woman who thinks she’s too good for her partner. And so, when Ben meets Albee and Walker later, Ben already has a negative impression of Albee.

Albee (who is often rude and sarcastic to people) and Ben (who is laid-back and equally sarcastic) end up clashing with each other and insulting each other. Carly tries to be a peacemaker in arguments between Albee and Walker. And there are several arguments and sullen silences between Albee and Walker in this movie. After a while, these marital spats and refusals to talk to each other get a little tiresome. About halfway through this 83-minute movie, you’ll probably wish that Albee and Walker would just make up their minds already if they’re going to stay together or go their separate ways.

And why is Carly so personally invested in these two strangers and so ready to meddle in their marriage? It turns out that Carly and Ben are having some relationship issues too. Carly is excited to make wedding plans. As for Ben? Not so much. Carly thinks it has to do with men typically not being as heavily involved in wedding planning as women are.

After a while, it becomes obvious that Carly wants to be like an unofficial relationship counselor to Albee and Walker because Carly feels that she’s losing control of her own relationship. Carly is a die-hard romantic who thinks she can “fix” things in relationships if she just shows enough compassion. She even goes as far as asking Ben to surprise Albee and Walker by offering them a portable table of breakfast food so that Albee and Walker can eat breakfast in bed. He reluctantly goes along with the idea.

Ben feels almost the exact opposite way as Carly does in dealing with Albee and Walker. Ben thinks that he and Carly should mind their own business when it comes to Albee and Walker’s marriage, and Albee and Walker are better off figuring things out on their own. Ben also believes some relationships are doomed, no matter how much counseling is done. And he thinks Albee is very annoying, because Ben says that Albee reminds him of the women he used to date for the past 20 years in previous bad relationships.

As the couple struggling with the decision to break up or stay together, Midthunder and Gray give riveting performances, although at times there’s a little bit of overacting between the two of them. Lind and Lee, as the less-volatile couple Carly and Ben, are adequate in their roles, with Lee’s acting skills being a little stitled and wooden in a few scenes. Pink’s direction of “The Wheel” builds up enough tension for viewers to be curious about what will happen to these couples, but the movie tends to drag in some areas. Expect to see multiple scenes of pouting Albee and melancholy Walker staring off into space during the moments when they’ve decided to stop talking to each other.

Carly and Ben serve as a counterpoint to Albee and Walker, because both couples are unraveling in their own ways. Carly and Ben are lot quieter about their problems than Albee and Walker are, because Albee and Walker put their marital discord on public display. Albee (who is fickle, abrasive and often very selfish) will undoubtedly be considered the character in the movie who’s the most difficult to like, but “The Wheel” isn’t about making all of the characters “likable.”

People who are like Albee are usually very emotionally damaged for any number of reasons. The movie skillfully shows that people who are like Albee have such low self-esteem, they don’t think they deserve love. And when someone offers true love to these deeply insecure people, they often want to push that person away, or hurt that person first, in order to avoid getting hurt. In many respects, “The Wheel” is a fascinating portrait of love, patience and forgiveness. It’s also about having the courage to navigate relationship minefields, as well as having the courage to walk away when a relationship isn’t worth saving.

Quiver Distribution released “The Wheel” on digital and VOD on July 22, 2022.

Review: ‘Blood on Her Name,’ starring Bethany Anne Lind, Will Patton and Elisabeth Röhm

February 28, 2020

by Carla Hay

Bethany Anne Lind in “Blood on Her Name” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Blood on Her Name” 

Directed by Matthew Pope

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed small U.S. town, this crime thriller has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Latino and African Americans in supporting roles) that represent the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A divorced mother who has killed a man tries to cover up the crime.

Culture Audience: “Blood on her Name” will appeal primarily to people who like tension-filled crime stories about ordinary people caught up in terrible circumstances.

Will Patton and Jared Ivers in “Blood on Her Name” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Blood on Her Name” sounds like it might be the title of a horror film,  but the story is really a crime thriller about choices that a desperate woman makes that will have long-lasting effects on her family. It’s suspenseful from beginning to end, and it will make viewers wonder what they would do if they were in the same situation.

In the beginning of the story, auto-body shop owner Leigh Tiller (played by Bethany Anne Lind) is bruised and battered from an obvious physical fight. But that’s not the worst of her problems. The man who caused her injuries is now dead, and Leigh is desperately trying to figure out where she should dump his body and get rid of the weapon (a mechanic’s wrench) that she used to kill him. The movie never shows the fight, even in flashbacks, so viewers will have to speculate about what took place during this fatal altercation.

With the body wrapped in tarp, Leigh takes the corpse with her in a canoe out to a lake, where she throws the wrench into the water.  The movie’s only real plot hole is that it doesn’t explain how Leigh, who is of average height and weight, could carry a dead body of that size by herself and load it in her car and then a canoe. Adrenaline has been proven to give people extraordinary strength, so that will have to be the only logical explanation.

As Leigh is about the throw the body into the lake too, the dead man’s cell phone rings. She lets it go to voice mail and then listens to the message. It’s the dead man’s son, who sounds concerned that he hadn’t come home the night before. In that moment, she decides not to dispose of the body in the lake, and she puts the body back in the trunk of her car.

Leigh is obviously in a major panic and isn’t thinking straight. Not only does she seem unsure of what to do with the body, she’s also taken no precautions to prevent her DNA or fingerprints from being on the body or the tarp used to cover it. The other less-than-smart thing that she does is keep the dead man’s cell phone. Apparently, she doesn’t know that police can track a cell phone’s location and travel route by the nearest cell phone towers that pick up the cell phone’s signal.

The next day, Leigh is in the car with her delinquent teenage son Ryan (played by Jared Ivers), as they drive to a meeting with Ryan’s parole officer. It isn’t specifically said what Ryan did that got him arrested, but it was bad enough where he ended up in jail, Leigh has to pay restitution, and Ryan has to do drug testing by urine sample.

While in the car, Leigh tells Ryan not to worry about the man who came to their home last night because he left right after Ryan left. From the expression on Ryan’s face, he’s somewhat skeptical, but he doesn’t press the matter. When Ryan and Leigh meet with parole officer Nathan Parrish (played by Tony Vaughn), the officer asks what happened to Leigh’s face, and she lies and tells him that she got injured on the job.

And where is Ryan’s father? He’s divorced from Leigh and is in prison for dirty deals involving stolen cars. It’s implied in the movie, but not said outright, that he used the auto-body shop to sell parts from these stolen automobiles. While he’s in prison, Leigh has taken over the shop, which is so small that only two people work there: Leigh and her loyal mechanic Jimmy Gonzales (played by Reynoso Dias), who immediately asks what happened to Leigh when she goes to work and he sees the injuries on her face.

Leigh tells Jimmy that that a junkie broke into the shop when she was alone, and she fought him off. When he tells her that she should report the break-in and assault to the police, Leigh says she won’t, because she doesn’t want the shop to have “a bad reputation with the few customers we have left.” When she’s alone, Leigh checks the computer surveillance video from the previous night and deletes what appears to be damning evidence.

And then Leigh does something strange: She goes back to the body to retrieve the dead man’s wallet, she takes out the driver’s license to get his address, and then drives to the address that’s on the license. She parks a little way down the street so she can get a good look at what’s going on at the address.

While parked in her car, she sees on the dead man’s cell phone that he’s been getting increasingly angry text messages from a woman who’s the mother of the son who left the voice mail from the previous night. The profile picture on the text messages shows what the woman looks like, and the same woman is sitting out front in the trailer. Her son, who appears to be in her late teens, is seen outside of the trailer too. The woman’s name is Dani Wilson (played by Elisabeth Röhm), and her son’s name is Travis (played by Jack Andrews).

While Leigh is spying on the dead man’s family, Leigh is startled by a cop, who asks why she’s parked there in the middle of the day. And the cop happens to be Leigh’s widowed father Richard (played by Will Patton), who’s on patrol duty. Even though this story takes place in an unnamed U.S. city, it’s obviously a small town because Richard doesn’t have a cop partner when he’s on patrol. And as the story unfolds with Leigh trying to cover up what she did, it’s even more obvious that the city where she lives has a very small police force.

Why was Leigh parked in front of the dead man’s home? We find out that it’s because she wanted to see where she could return the body to his family without being caught. She goes back to the home at night to dispose of the body in the family’s shed. She then leaves a hand-written note in the family’s mailbox that says, “He’s in the shed. I’m sorry.”

Even though it would have been easier to get away with what she did if the body was never found, one can only speculate that she wanted the body to be found because she felt guilty and wanted to give closure to the dead man’s family. In a weird way, she’s thinking that it’s more “respectful” to leave the body at the dead man’s home instead of leaving the body at a random place where a stranger would find it.

But how much will this decision cost Leigh in the end? And who exactly was the dead man? Those questions are answered in the movie. But there are some twists and turns along the way, including Leigh noticing that her unusual necklace (a tiny wrench on a chain) is missing, and she might have dropped it when she left the body in the shed.

“Blood on Her Name” (ably directed by Matthew Pope, who wrote the screenplay with Don M. Thompson) maintains a panic-stricken tone throughout the film. If some of Leigh’s decisions might seem illogical, consider that this is probably the first time she’s killed someone, and the death doesn’t appear to have been planned in advance. And then factor in that her father is a cop who would be investigating the disappearance/death of this man, and it’s easy to see why her thought process would be scrambled by extreme fear and guilt.

During different scenes in the movie, Leigh starts to have flashback visions of herself as a child of about 8 or 9 years old. It’s here that we see that she used to idolize her father at that age, and she admired his job as a cop so much that she would ride in the back of his police car. But she now has a strained relationship with her father, no doubt because she was married to a man who’s now in prison. In case it wasn’t clear from her actions, Leigh’s nickname could be “Bad Life Choices.”

“Blood on Her Name” is not a groundbreaking film, but it’s a taut thriller with solid acting and a few unpredictable revelations that add depth to the movie. The morality dilemmas in the story aren’t just about what someone would do to cover up a crime but also what someone would do to protect a family.

Vertical Entertainment released “Blood on Her Name” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and on VOD on February 28, 2020.

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