TIFF 2021 Review: A Marriage Takes a Turn in Steve Pink’s “The Wheel”

“Can we please fall apart somewhere else?” Albee (Amber Midthunder) asks early in “The Wheel,” surely knowing that heading to a cabin in the woods rarely ends well, even if the latest film from Steve Pink isn’t a horror movie, or at least one with bloodletting. Her husband Walker (Taylor Gray) couldn’t be any kinder as he drives them up for what he hopes will be a spiritually rejuvenating weekend, but the copy of “Seven Questions to Save Your Marriage” that sits in the backseat might as well be a machete and every word that comes out of his mouth must seem like a little stab to the chest.

One suspects by the time that they at the bed and breakfast run by another couple in Ben (Nelson Lee) and Carly (Bethany Anne Lind) that “The Wheel” was a pandemic production, limited in its characters and locations, but born out of a desire to take risks elsewhere and Pink, a director who has cultivated a rep for directing bawdy comedies with a little something extra to them, brings an experienced eye to writer Trent Atkinson’s finely observed relationship drama. The film isn’t as much of a stretch as one would think for the “Accepted” and “Hot Tub Time Machine,” having last helmed “About Last Night,” the rare remake that improved upon any of its prior incarnations regarding two couples working out how serious they want to take things and the same logline could apply here as Ben worries as soon as Albee and Walker show up that “relationships are contagious,” potentially putting into jeopardy his impending nuptials to Carly.

He’s joking of course, but there’s real reason for concern when Albee may have agreed to one last weekend together with Walker, but appears to have no interest whatsoever in salvaging their marriage, giving the evil eye to the champagne and cheese that’s been set out for them as a welcome gift. Stories of couples headed towards a separation are rare onscreen, but even more so are those that tell of couples that got married too young and have simply grown apart as the years have gone on as Albee and Walker have, with Carly marveling at the fact that they’ve been married eight years when they’re only in the mid-twenties, and “The Wheel” feels fresh when Albee and Walker may not be a whole lot different than when they first met each other, but as their circumstances changed, they started seeing things they hadn’t before. Carly and Ben can’t help but start wondering what the future holds for them when overhearing the couple, delivering their breakfast or actually inviting them over for lunch out of compassion.

The fact that Carly wants to make Albee and Walker’s stay as comfortable as possible is indicative of the warmth “The Wheel” has as a whole, showing a genuine investment in all of its characters and sympathetic to all, even when they’re at odds. Far from ever becoming the ongoing tirade that one might imagine, it is instead a contemplative walk in the woods that keeps a brisk pace and a keen eye on nature as the quartet have a way of occasionally surprising themselves with their reactions to what seems inevitable. There isn’t much love lost in “The Wheel,” but what’s there is from the heart.

“The Wheel” will screen at the Toronto Film Festival on September 13th in person at the TIFF Bell Lightbox at 1 pm and virtually in Canada via the digital TIFF Bell Lightbox on September 14th at 2 pm and September 17th at 4 pm.