Everyone dreams. Even in Brooklyn. And for writer/director Paul Starkman, his dreams of Brooklyn have become his love letter.
Wheels is fun escapism that displays the power of those dreams. The story is endearing, the characters are enjoyable, their quests honest. Along with being a love letter, Wheels is a love story and a drama in pursuit of those dreams. Yet when reality hits – and it does – Wheels scrambles and the glossy edges of that dream fragment more than they should.
Rapper Arnstar plays DJ Max-A-Million who has aspirations to hit the big time, like his hero DJ Monty. He wants to spin his wheels at high-end clubs and on Brooklyn’s airwaves. Instead, he is doing birthday parties as favors for Oscar, the neighborhood gangster. Terry, Max’s older brother, returns home after a three-year stint upstate. He attempts to stay clean and help with the family, which includes their grandmother dealing with Alzheimer’s, but apparently it is hard to make cash on those mean streets. Both brothers turn to Oscar for work. Max scores some gigs while Terry’s tasks are more manual, and criminal. Max wants to break free. He wants to spin tunes and spend time with Liza, his new girlfriend, and help his grandmother. But life in Brooklyn is more than black-and-white.
First-time feature film director Paul Starkman shoots his home of Brooklyn with the love of a son. The constant, anonymous traffic thrums in the background. The Bridge stands as a sentinel of strength and shadow. Graffiti tags the walls and trash builds in the alleys but the Starkman always points the camera up into the open sky. And does it all in gorgeous black-and-white.
Wheels moves with the presence of its lineage. Starkman builds on those new indie voices of the cinema: Smith’s Clerks; Spike’s She’s Gotta Have It. He plays on the relationships within the story and balances conflict with joy aspiring to hit a new vibe.
Starkman definitely honors the light over the dark, giving his story a sheen and creates within Brooklyn a mythical presence. The magical fantasy built is too hyper real. For when the darkness eventually encroaches, such exploits are merely cliche instead of real and sad.
The primary trio of Max, Liza (Shyrley Rodriguez), and Terry (Joshua Boone) all perform admirably, if stilted. Max is always smiling; Terry moping. These are early performances in young careers with promises of more to expand their repertoire. There is a beautiful innocence in their performances. The chemistry between Max and Liza works; their light warms the room.
Starkman spends more time on set-up and staging than delivery. For instance, Oscar (Kareem Savinon) gives a fine mustache twirl of a performance, which is far better than the dated street-speak he utters. His threat is real as he masks a false kindness. But such scripted threats are never more than oil skimming on water.
For a story about hip-hop and jams, Wheels lovingly homages old school soul making for a melodic, timeless score. Such smoothness, though, plays out too anachronistic at times. Mostly absent are Max’s mixes where the hip and now needed to represent the beat of the present.
Starkman creates a beautiful world, even with some rough edges. His theme is one of promise but ironically such end up forgotten. Max trains his spinning skills. Liza manages her yoga studio. Terry desires freedom. Oscar fights for power. The subplots build too quickly and unevenly with an unsatisfying closure.
Artistically, this is where Starkman seeks to make his mark. For the viewer, the abrupt ending is the dream interrupted by the pop of a needle skidding across the wrong track. That next jam might groove but is missing the previous beat.