“Wheels” is not easy to watch.
This low-budget film, which cost less to make than a luxury car, classifies itself as a dark comedy, but its weak acting and predictable ending cloud the film in mediocrity.
“Wheels” follows the story of Mickey (Donavon Thomas), a suicidal paraplegic man haunted by the memory of his broken family. The film opens with him trying to end his life in a number ways, but each time he is unsuccessful. Disheartened, he stumbles upon loose cannon Drake (Patrick Hume), another paraplegic man whose desperation and taste for money have launched him on a path of crime. When Mickey meets Drake and hires him to shoot him in the head, the pair becomes unlikely friends. As the two set themselves on a downward spiral, they both begin to face their inner demons.
As a dramatic piece, the acting quality is mixed at best. For the majority of the film, Thomas’ portrayal of Mickey falls short, characterized by an apathetic voice-over and a general lack of conviction. By the end, Mickey, as a character, gains more texture as he confronts his past and gains back the will to live, but even then still falls a bit flat. Much of the character’s complexity is derived from flashbacks rather than Thomas’ acting.
Meanwhile, Hume’s performance as Drake provides a much more compelling depiction of desperation and psychosis. At first glance, he’s crazy, dirty and possibly disease-ridden. But as the character unfolds, there are subtle nuances that reveal his sentimentality and his loyalty to his friend.
The most impressive aspect of this film is its appearance as a high-quality art piece even with a shoestring budget. Co-director Tim Gagliardo had lost his apartment, sold his possessions and was living in Thomas’ office until Thomas found him on his couch. The two then decided to co-direct the piece. Thomas soon followed suit by selling his car and becoming a medical test subject during production in order to raise funds for filming.
Thomas and Gagliardo were determined to put together a high-quality piece despite their near-nonexistent budget, and at one point the crew even relandscaped the front of a production studio in exchange for shooting hours. Donavon and his crew’s efforts paid off because nothing in the film looks rushed or tossed together. The sets are humble and the cast is small, but it all gives an air of authenticity to the film rather than suggesting that the film was poorly funded.
Adding to the sophistication of the film, the camera is a huge agent in the piece’s storytelling. A series of flashbacks interwoven with present-day action delicately unveil the backstories of both Mickey and Drake in way that acting alone can’t quite accomplish.
The camera focuses on particular objects and keys into certain facial expressions to add an extra layer to the storytelling. As the lens zooms in on Mickey struggling to reach a bottle on a high shelf from his wheelchair, it suddenly flashes to a memory of Mickey as a child, running carefree in the sunlight. The flashback continuously punctuates the loss Mickey endured and further explains the magnitude of his despair.
Though the flashbacks add an emotional background to the film, it fails in a number of other aspects, including its attempts to be comedic.
Although “Wheels” claims to be a dark comedy, its execution falls short if its aim is for laughs. The film comes across as a heavy drama. Moments where the dynamic duo robs people, does drugs and lights each other on fire may seem to have a humorous flair to them, but ultimately the viewer is left feeling uncomfortable and a little bit sad.
More disappointing than the attempt at comedy was the film’s cop-out ending. Although the twist ending comes nearly out of the blue, the conclusion, wrought with cliché and a distinct lack of resolution, is ultimately dissatisfying. The authenticity the film had earned earlier in the storyline quickly dissipates as the film transitions from a politically incorrect story of human desperation to an oversimplified commentary on the beauty of living.
“Wheels” is most compelling for the way it humanizes the experience of unconventional salvation, but its portrayal of the subject material is cringe-worthy at best. It falls flat in several places. In this case, the making of this film is more interesting than the piece itself.
– Kelsey Rocha