On the surface, there's a lot about The Color Wheel that is unappealing. The graininess of the black-and-white 16mm film is occasionally irritating, and so is the loose, sometimes stumbling, too-self-aware dialogue spoken in two of the most irritating voices you'll ever hear. From the offset, it seems like the movie can be heaped in with all the other too-smart-for-their-own-good, low-budget, DIY indie films, but there's more here. A lot more.
The initial premise is simple: Older sister JR (Carlen Altman) has convinced her begrudging brother Colin (Alex Ross Perry) to drive with her from their family home to Boston, a day or so away. She's an aspiring broadcast journalist who's in the process of leaving her boyfriend-professor, but first she's got to pick up her stuff. Colin, an aspiring writer who won't write because he doesn't want to call himself an aspiring writer, lives in their parents' attic with his sexually withholding girlfriend and collects gargoyles. He used to be overweight.
From the get go, there are hints to how awful and possibly useless a person JR is. She wasn't invited to, or even informed of, the last family vacation, an all-expenses-paid trip to Puerto Rico. Her high school friends stopped speaking to her years ago and only invite her to a party out of pity when she bumps into them on the street. The professor ex-boyfriend (a perfectly disgusting asshole performance from Bob Byington, who pronounces "vase" as "vahse") refuses to call their live-in tryst a relationship and belittles her youth as his latest gullible conquest waits with Colin in the next room.
At the same time, JR is likeable, or maybe pitiable is a better word, especially whenever Colin word-vomits criticisms at her. She exaggerates her piddling career to her judgmental peers, nervously fussing with her hair and even relying on an inhaler at her most taxing moments. JR is certainly mean, but she's still fairly clever in her meanness, ordering her brother an ostentatious birthday platter at a diner, complete with sparklers, that is conveniently presented to him during a break in one of their arguments. But despite their squabbling, she believes in Colin and seems to want the best for him. Or maybe she just hates his girlfriend.
Fortunately, the film is not confined to the siblings bickering for long, uncomfortable shots. Their trip is peppered with cartoonish scenarios that manage to be absurd without being cloying, from an encounter with a zealous hotel manager who believes 16 is a great age to have babies to the weirdest party a 20-something could ever throw, with blazered bullies enforcing a dress code and a waifish host in a cocktail dress who snacks on a burrito while greeting guests. In other settings, the zaniness of these situations would feel too fabricated and obvious, but they work well in The Color Wheel.
As the road trip settles down in Boston, JR and Colin go from bickering, bratty siblings to two young adults with a deep underlying connection beyond their genetic makeup. They both fear the mediocrity that settles in during the post-college years, but while Colin seems to be sinking into his averageness, JR isn't ready to give up yet, on herself or her brother. While the film was directed by Perry (and co-written with Altman), The Color Wheel never feels self-centered, which is refreshing for an indie project of this ilk, in which filmmakers are prone to exclusively deal with their own ennui in front of and/or behind the camera (you know, like in Tiny Furniture, The Puffy Chair, basically lots of mumblecore or mumblecore-adjacent movies). Instead, the siblings' relationship is the true substance here.
And even deeper, there is an irrepressible incestuous foreboding throughout The Color Wheel, starting with a forced kiss between the two at the hands of the weirdo motel manager to more subtle, lingering shots of JR's thighs. It's this odd, hinted subtext that pushes the viewer through to the very end, despite the fuzzy, low-budget trappings that might turn them away.
The Color Wheel will screen at the Olde North Charleston Picture House on Sat. June 9 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $2 for Greater Park Circle Film Society members and $5 for non-members. Visit parkcirclefilms.org for more info.