It doesn’t take long for Wheels to start feeling cozy. Written and directed by Paul Starkman, it’s one of those tightly wound stories where a neighborhood feels like the entire universe. Tense exchanges with family and friends are as severe as global conflicts. Max (Arnstar) is a young guy trying to hold together his broken home with gum and paperclips. Living alone with his fading grandmother, he’s thrown off balance by the return of his brother, who has just been released from prison.
When Max isn’t juggling family issues, he’s pursuing his passion of being a DJ. We’re not talking about those dudes with the bad haircuts and the laser pointers, nor are we talking about delivering traffic reports and enunciating call signs (“W-EHHHN-B-C”). Max is looking to be a party DJ—a mix between host and music curator. When we first meet him, he’s hosting a children’s birthday party, because, well, you have to start somewhere. Coinciding with the return of his brother, Max gets more involved with two of the neighborhood’s less savory characters and meets a nice girl who does yoga. Under this flurry of both good and bad influences, he struggles to keep his aim true.
Out of the gate, Wheels looks good in its crispy black and white—New York’s ideal palette, from what I can tell. The stark style and the lived-in locations give the movie an immediate authenticity. This is backed by the performances, which all feel homespun—nobody’s trying to get noticed. A lot of the drama is left in the silences, which would normally be filled by an insecure filmmaker afraid of not doing enough.
“…a young guy trying to hold together his broken home with gum and paperclips.”
Even so, none of the emotions hit you in the gut as they should. What you get are light, flirtatious shoves every now and then, but you hardly feel them. The film’s almost too breezy and likable for its own good. When Max and his brother unload all their emotional baggage, you believe them because of the performances, but the material just isn’t there. I can’t remember a single line of dialogue. This isn’t to say the movie has to be talky, but there has to be something to latch onto.
The New York setting brings up memories of Sidney Lumet movies, in which characters are so fiery with emotion and seem to commandeer the telling of their own stories. In Wheels, the context is there, but those deeply human moments—instantly familiar to anyone who can pick out three pictures of a fire hydrant—are not. The conflict is too clean and too deliberate. Everything fits together too well.
Wheels won’t leave a lasting impression, but so what? Who needs another one of those? It’s a sleek little movie with a lot going for it, most notably its atmosphere and cast. Anyone who cringes at the scratching of records should stay far away. They’re so fragile.
"…looks good in its crispy black and white—New York's ideal palette..."