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: ‘Hard Luck Love Song,’ starring Michael Dorman, Sophia Bush, Dermot Mulroney, RZA, Brian Sacca, Melora Walters and Eric Roberts

October 26, 2021

by Carla Hay

Sophia Bush and Michael Dorman in “Hard Luck Love Song” (Photo by Andrea Giacomini/Roadside Attractions)

“Hard Luck Love Song”

Directed by Justin Corsbie

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed Texas city, the dramatic film “Hard Luck Love Song” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latinos, one African American and one person of Indian heritage) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An aspiring singer/songwriter, who is also a drug-addicted drifter, hustles for money by playing pool and has a volatile reunion with an ex-girlfriend. 

Culture Audience: “Hard Luck Love Song” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Sophia Bush (even though she isn’t in most of the movie) and to viewers who don’t mind watching unremarkable movies about self-destructive drifters with broken dreams.

Dermot Mulroney in “Hard Luck Love Song” (Photo by Jas Shelton/Roadside Attractions)

“Hard Luck Love Song” wants viewers to believe it’s a gritty and realistic portrait of an American drifter, but the movie falls apart in the last 30 minutes, with one unrealistic scenario after another. Sophia Bush, who shares top billing in the movie, doesn’t even appear on screen in “Hard Luck Love Song” until 44 minutes into this 104-minute film. Expect to see a lot of pointless footage of aimless main character Jesse Richardson (played by Michael Dorman), as he lives out of a motel and tries to figures out a way to get easy cash.

This is a movie that would’ve been better as a short film. Maybe that’s because “Hard Luck Love Song” (the feature-film directorial debut of Justin Corsbie) was inspired by a song: 2006’s “Just Like Old Times” by Americana singer/songwriter Todd Snider. It’s an interesting but somewhat gimmicky story for how this movie was conceived. Unfortunately, the “Hard Luck Love Song” screenplay (written by Corsbie and Craig Ugoretz) doesn’t live up to the potential of being a compelling tale of people who don’t have much hope in their lives while living on the fringes of society.

Jesse (who is in his late 30s) is one of those people who seems to be down on their luck, but the movie slowly reveals that his “bad luck” is actually the culmination of his bad decisions in life. A native of Texas, Jesse has been struggling with addictions to drugs and alcohol for years. Jesse has also been trying for years to make it in the music business as a singer/songwriter (he performs country-ish Americana music), but he remains unknown and broke. And now, Jesse is homeless and trying to find ways to make enough cash to get through any given week.

The movie (which takes place in an unnamed Texas city) opens with Jesse driving in his car and heading to wherever he can find a cheap place to stay and a job that doesn’t care about doing background checks. (Jesse has a prison record.) Jesse checks into a motel and peruses the want ads in a newspaper. He ends up driving to a bunch of seedy-looking bars in the area and applies for jobs where they’re looking to hire people.

In the meantime, Jesse needs cash fast. Luckily for him, he has other skills besides playing the guitar and writing songs, since he can’t find work as a musician. Jesse is also a very talented pool player. And so, the first hour of the movie is about Jesse winning money in pool games at one dive bar after another. (He wins more than he loses.)

During one of these pool games, Jesse finds out about an informal pool tournament that happens every first Saturday of the month at a bar called Broadway Social. At this tournament, Jesse excels and wins $3,000 as the grand prize. However, one of the people he defeated in the tournament takes the loss very hard and decides he’s going to get his money back from Jesse any way that he can.

This sore loser is a thug named Rollo (played by Dermot Mulroney), who has two sidekick goons: a short, weaselly character named Pete (played by Zac Badasci) and a hulking brute named Bump (played by Randal Reedner), who no doubt got his nickname because he likes to snort “bumps” of cocaine. Rollo, Pete and Bump surround Jesse and pressure him to play another game of pool with Rollo, with the obvious intention of getting the prize money from Jesse.

Jesse has enough street smarts to know that this forced pool game will not end well for him. And so, there’s a somewhat suspenseful sequence showing how Jesse deals with this situation. One of the movie’s flaws is that it seems like it wants to be two different stories about the same character. One story is about Jesse’s struggles to get money. That story then gets abandoned and segues to the other story, which is about Jesse’s drama-filled reunion with an ex-girlfriend.

The first 60% of the movie is about Jesse and his search for ways to make some easy cash. He’s never seen working at an actual job. It seems to be a longtime pattern for him that he’s incapable of keeping steady employment. This part of the movie is just scene after scene of chain-smoking Jesse wandering from bar to bar and playing pool.

When he’s in his motel alone, Jesse plays his guitar and chain smokes some more. Dorman does his own singing in the movie, including an original song (“I’ll Be Your Honky Tonk”) that the wrote. He’s a good singer, but not great.

After winning the $3,000 in the pool tournament, Jesse’s first action indicates that he’d rather spend the money on some indulgences instead of saving the money or spending it on necessary expenses. One of the first things he does is look in a local rag newspaper’s back pages, where escorts are advertising their services. (Jesse is so broke, he doesn’t seem to have a smartphone, which explans why he relies on printed newspapers to read ads.)

Jesse calls one of the women who’s in these escort ads. Her alias is Cottontail, but her real name is Carla (played by Bush). When Jesse calls her, she seems to be surprised to hear from him. He invites Carla over for drinks. At first she’s reluctant, but then she agrees. While he talks to her on the phone, tears roll down his face. And that’s the first big clue that Jesse and Carla have some unfinished business.

At a nearby convenience store, Jesse has made the acquaintance of a store clerk named Benny (played by Taylor Gray), who notices that Jesse seems to be in a very good mood when Jesse comes up to the cash register to buy liquor. Benny can tell that Jesse likes to party, so Benny asks Jesse if he wants to be hooked up with something stronger than alcohol. Jesse says yes. And after Jesse assures Benny that he wasn’t a cop wearing any surveillance equipment (Jesse lifts up his shirt as proof), Benny sells Jesse some cocaine.

Jesse’s plan is to party with Carla by drinking and doing cocaine with her. And when she shows up at the motel, it’s obvious that this type of partying is familiar activity for both of them, even though they haven’t seen each other in years. Carla is initially reluctant to do cocaine with Jesse, but eventually she does.

What’s the story with Carla? She is Jesse’s ex-girlfriend from high school. They’ve known each other since before they were in high school. And they’ve had a dysfunctional, on-again/off-again relationship for years. Lately, because of Jesse’s drug problems and prison time, the relationship has been most definitely “off.”

However, Carla showed up for this rendezvous for a reason. Does she want to get back together with Jesse, or is she just paying him a visit out of curiosity? And is she a prostitute? Jesse wants answers to those questions and he gets them, even though he isn’t completely honest with Carla at first.

Jess lies to Carla by saying he’s an in-demand songwriter. He flashes her some of the cash he won and tells her it’s some of the payment he’s gotten for songwriting. Carla is no fool though, because she can see that the dumpy motel where Jesse is staying is an obvious sign that he’s struggling financially. At first Carla and Jesse’s reunion is filled with awkward tension, but they loosen up a lot when they get drunk and high together.

During this night of partying, Carla takes Jesse to a bar where she says that she works. It’s here that Jesse meets Carla’s bar boss Skip (played by Eric Roberts), who tells Jesse that he’s very protective of Carla because she’s a good person. Carla’s best friend at the bar is named Gypsy Sally (played by Melora Walters), who knows about Carla’s turbulent history with Jesse and warns her to be careful about getting involved with him again.

The main problem with “Hard Luck Love Song” is that at several points in the movie, viewers will ask themselves, “Where is this story going?” There’s a rambling style to the film that’s filled with a lot of generic dialogue. Dorman and Bush are perfectly adequate in their roles (Jesse and Carla are both emotionally damaged in their own ways), but these actors’ performances aren’t enough to make this plodding story more compelling.

“Hard Luck Love Song” goes from mediocre to bad with the mishandling of two particular characters. One is a cop named Officer Zach (played by Brian Sacca), who shows up at Jesse’s motel room when Carla is there. (Carla and Jesse predictably scramble to hide the cocaine.) Officer Zach is there in response to noise complaints because apparently Jesse and Carla were being too loud in playing music and laughing during their coke-and-alcohol-fueled party.

The first clue that Officer Zach is unrealistically written is that he shows up with no cop partner for backup. It might be excused if this is a small town with a small police force, but it’s still unrealistic. And then, Officer Zach tells Jesse that he wouldn’t mind partying with Jesse if he could, but he can’t because he’s on duty. What kind of cop on duty says that to a stranger he just met in response to a noise complaint? It’s possible but still far-fetched.

It gets worse with the other badly written character. When Carla arrived at the motel, Jesse looked out the window and saw a man lurking and watching Carla as she went to Jesse’s room. Jesse eventually finds out that this stranger’s name is Louis (played by RZA), and Jesse’s first impression of Louis is that Louis is Carla’s pimp. Without giving away any spoiler information, it’s enough to say that Louis does know Carla. The nature of their relationship is revealed in the last 15 minutes of the movie.

One of the worst things about “Hard Luck Love Song” is that it has some negative racial stereotyping that could be considered offensive to African Americans. The reason why is because there’s only one black person with a noticeable speaking role in this movie, and it’s a role that is problematic and filled with terrible clichés. There’s a racially tinged conflict in the story which has someone showing up out of the blue in an “only in a movie” moment that will have viewers rolling their eyes or cringing at how stupid this scene is.

After having a “slice of life” tone for most of the movie, the tone abruptly shifts to melodrama and moronically staged violence toward the end of the movie. It’s a very clumsy transition, even though this violence is foreshadowed with a brief flash in the beginning of the film. The aftermath of some gun violence in the movie is handled in a completely ludicrous way. And the movie’s last scene is jarringly out-of-touch and phony, compared to the rest of the film. How everything ends feels tacked-on and completely dilutes the edginess that the movie intended to convey throughout most of the story.

“Hard Luck Love Song” is not a movie with much purpose, except to show the main characters trying to forget about all their bad decisions while they make more bad decisions. Just because Jesse sheds tears of regret doesn’t mean that viewers will have a lot of sympathy for him. Because the pivotal character of Carla arrives so late in the film, “Hard Luck Love Song” is mostly a tedious slog showing a loner whose life is on a wasted repeat loop. This movie’s lack of substance isn’t too surprising because it’s a 104-minute film based on a four-minute song. And the song is better than this movie.

Roadside Attractions released “Hard Luck Love Song” in U.S. cinemas on October 15, 2021. The movie’s premium video on demand (PVOD) release date is November 9, 2021. Lionsgate Home Entertainment will release “Hard Luck Love Song” on digital and VOD on December 21, 2021.

Copyright 2017-2023 Culture Mix
CULTURE MIX