Growing up, if I had a nickel for every time an adult told me to pursue my passions, I would have Scrooge McDuck money by now. And how do you argue with that advice? Life is too short to spend it toiling away at jobs that crush your spirit. But when you take a moment to think about it, how many people do you know who are out in the world, living their best life? Only a few, I’m guessing.
Why aren’t more people out there chasing their dreams? Are we setting the success bar way too high, or does fate have ways of keeping things out of reach? Most importantly, are we cheating ourselves if we’re realistic about our prospects for an ideal life?
What’s the difference between going after our dreams and being delusional – we’ve all seen some tone-deaf singer auditioning for reality shows, thinking they’re the music industry’s next big thing. Nobody wants to be that person, but sadly enough, some of us must be that person.
These are the questions at the heart of writer-director Paul Starkman’s indie drama, Wheels. Starkman uses a young man’s pursuit of a DJ career as a lens to explore our everyday struggles as we balance doing what we love with the responsibilities of adult life.
Wheels stars Sean C. Kirkland (aka Arnstar) as Max, a young New York City DJ trying to make a name for himself. After his brother Terry (Joshua Boone) went to jail a few years back, Max became the man of the house. He dropped out of school to find work and take care of his sickly grandmother (Dorothi Fox). Now Max splits his time between working a dead-end job and DJ’ing birthday parties, which is not where he wants to be. Instead he dreams of getting some radio burn, and performing in front of large crowds.
His prospects begin to change once Terry returns home, and some local hoodlums offer to connect Max with people to jumpstart his DJ career. The situation forces Max to choose between getting what he wants right now or to keep busting his ass to chase a life that may not be in the cards.
Starkman knocks it out of the park with his feature debut. This filmmaker honed his craft working on reality TV projects like Top Chef and Nailed It!, and brings his A-game to the big screen his first time out. This under the radar indie film looks like a million bucks and has more style and flair than most movies making the indie circuit rounds.
And I just have to say, damn Starkman and his cinematographer Ariel Boles, for creating such a vibrant slice of New York life. This is not what I need to be looking at 10 months into quarantine. I found myself gazing at their romanticized black and white vision of New York city like a kid with their face pressed into a candy store window. This movie did more than make me miss New York; it left me yearning to be outside experiencing life.
Wheels bristles with that special New York energy that you can’t recreate by shooting anywhere but the Big Apple. As L trains thunder over bumper-to-bumper traffic, you can almost smell the scent of hot dog stands and honey roasted nuts wafting through your living room. The duo’s affectionate vision of city life is a bittersweet reminder of the way the world used to be, not that long ago.
Boles finds compelling ways to frame the action, framing the soft-spoken Max in ways that express what he’s feeling inside. My favourite shot in the film sees Max dragging his record crates behind him as the camera keeps pulling away. By the end of the shot, Max is barely visible in the frame, looking like a frantic little worker ant, toiling away in a concrete jungle, hoping not to get picked off by a predator.
Part of Wheels’ magic is its standout score, which even outshine movies with much larger budgets. I’ve seen too many indie films suffer from music too dull to cut it as elevator muzak. Thankfully, that’s not the case here, and the dope score helps transport the audience deeper into Max’s world.
Considering that this movie is about a DJ, Wheels’ composer had to come correct. The film serves up an infectious mix of old-school hip-hop and vintage soul music guaranteed to have hip-hop fans nodding their heads all the way through the picture.
Wheels works both as an inspiring coming-of-age story and a cold cautionary tale. Starkman explores what it means to chase your dreams in a callous world that doesn’t give up many happily ever afters. The film reminds us that win, lose, or draw, the world still keeps on turning. All that’s in your hands is whether you try to keep up or get left behind.
You can check out Wheels right now digitally on Itunes, AppleTV, Amazon Prime, Fandango, Vudu, Vimeo On Demand, Google Play, and VOD.