As with 8 Mile before it, Wheels centers on a young musician who isn’t so much concerned about climbing to rarified air, as he is scaling the next few feet. Max (Arnstar), an aspiring DJ, just needs a little more gear or the right pair of ears to hear his gift on just the right night. So many people he knows are going nowhere, Max just wants to prove that even slightly higher ground is possible. You probably think this type of story sounds familiar, and you’d be right. But even though Wheels tramps a well-trodden path, it does so with grace and confidence in each stride.
The entirety of the story takes place in Brooklyn, which constitutes a supporting character in of itself. Writer-director Paul Starkman eschews the borough’s modern rep as a gentrified oasis for granola hipsters, and instead takes us to the streets that are leaner and meaner. It’s here that hip-hop was born to the world, and it’s here that so many young people must navigate the perilous pitfalls of prison and poverty.
When we first meet Max–aka DJ Maxamillian–these dangers weigh heavily on his mind: Terry (Joshua Boone), his older brother, has just been released from prison. Their grandmother (Dorothi Fox) struggles with dementia and requires constant care. In the midst of this hardship, Max dreams of being a big-time DJ, but even this takes the form of two disparate roads: He can take dead-end gigs for a criminal boss (Kareem Savinon) and pocket small-time money now. Or, Max can study under mentor Monty (Ioan Delice) and take a chance on a later payday. It’s an impossible choice, but Max has to make it if he’s ever to become a star.
Along this journey, Max stumbles into the dance studio of Liza (Shyrley Rodriguez). She’s strong, smart, and beautiful, and he instantly goes googly-eyed. Their budding romance is one of the film’s strengths: Where many filmmakers would throw Max and Liza together quickly for the sake of the plot, Starkman lets their love burn slowly. This allows their eventual heat to feel more real.
The film is also elevated by its central performances. Arnstar, Boone, and Rodriguez are natural actors, and their sense of realism suits the film perfectly. Max, Terry, and Liza always seem like actual people working through actual problems, thus giving Wheels much of its dramatic oomph.
Starkman further underlines this heightened reality by filming in beautiful black and white. I’ve said it before and I’ll chuck it out there again: I’m a sucker for this kind of cinematography. It gives a film like Wheels an undeniable timelessness. After all, Max and Terry aren’t the first people to be fueled by an uneasy combination of dreams and desperation, and they certainly won’t be the last.
Like Max’s turntables, Wheels never stops moving. Most scenes pulse with a mash-mix of soul, funk, and hip-hop. If there’s any quibble with any of this, it’s that Starkman could’ve kept this groove going beyond its 80 minutes. He has a good ear for dialogue, and the actors are so strong, I was ready to learn a little more. What really drives Liza to dance? Does Terry have any goals, other than to keep his head above water?
Still, that shouldn’t keep you away from Wheels. After all, how many times have I complained that a movie doesn’t know when to quit? This one left me wanting more, and that says a lot. Much like Max’s journey, I don’t need the view from the mountaintop. Just the next few feet will do.
80 minutes. NR.