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Plenty of films throw together characters who don’t like one another. The Color Wheel ups the ante: The story revolves around a heightened case of sibling animosity, and the characters’ very unlikability is its subject. In his second outing, DIY filmmaker Alex Ross Perry (Impolex) constructs a road trip about stagnation, fueled by anger and post-mumblecore irony but also an unexpected vulnerability. There’s a method to Perry’s deadpan madness in this serious comedy, and where there’s smirk there’s fire.
The ultra-low-budget feature, screening in the Young Americans section of AFI Fest, has been gathering praise on the festival circuit, where it will continue to draw adventurous filmgoers who aren’t put off by unpleasant characters, flat-affect performances and lo-fi production values.
Shooting in grainy B&W and 16 mm, cinematogrpaher Sean Williams gives the trek an unfussy vintage feel (the director cites Robert Frank’s photographs as an influence) and never overplays the visual jokes or nods to kitsch. Preston Spurlock’splangent guitar-centric score provides fitting counterpoint to the variously droll and repellent proceedings.
Perry and co-scripter Carlen Altman play Colin and JR, a 20something brother and sister whose self-involvement and nonstop verbal sparring keep each other, and everyone they encounter, at a disgusted distance. She’s all unfocused urgency, nurturing vague ambitions to be a news anchor; he’s all tamped-down energy, having traded in his creative goals for a dull job.
Colin wears his schlubbiness like armor. After charmlessly attempting to coax his hostile girlfriend (indie filmmaker Ry Russo-Young) into farewell sex, he takes off for the weekend — gargoyle collection in tow —to help his older sister retrieve her belongings from the apartment of her ex. The former boyfriend, played by another indie director, Bob Byington, happens to have been JR’s professor. And like every person they meet on their seemingly pointless pilgrimage through the diners and motels of the Northeast, he’s utterly devoid of compassion or decency.
Everyone, not just the insult-spewing central duo, uses language as a weapon. From a ridiculous Christian innkeeper, who forces Colin and JR into a squirmy bit of role-playing, to the frenemies from high school who torment them at a pretentious party, the human specimens grow increasingly horrendous. The two main characters almost willfully deliver themselves up for abuse, out of social ineptitude and, it becomes clear, a darker fumbling for absolution.
But Perry and Altman never demand audience sympathy, even as they strip away layers of their characters’ identities. With superb comic timing and verbal riffs, they generate convincing sibling chemistry, extreme though it may be, and suggest the wounds beneath the shrill psychodrama — those measly two boxes JR collects from her professor’s place being mere pretext for this expedition. Even in overdone scenes like the one at the prof’s, Altman makes JR’s self-dramatization as riveting as it is off-putting.
Within its brief running time, The Color Wheel can feel padded. But just when it appears to be sliding into a throwaway moment, offhand slander turns into a nine-minute monologue that ties together the story’s ragged threads. In startling fashion, Colin and JR complete their project of breaking each other down, and find the closest thing to mercy they can muster.
Venue: AFI Fest
Production company: A Dorset Films production
Cast: Carlen Altman, Alex Ross Perry, Bob Byington, Kate Lyn Sheil, Anna Bak-Kvapil, Ry Russo-Young, Craig Butta, C. Mason Wells, Roy Thomas
Director/producer/editor: Alex Ross Perry
Screenwriters: Alex Ross Perry, Carlen Altman
Director of photography: Sean Williams
Production designer: Anna Bak-Kvapil
Music: Preston Spurlock
Co-producer: Bob Byington
No rating, 83 minutes
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