A sibling rivalry relationship film about a brother and sister that can’t seem to get along, yet can’t find anyone else to remotely understand them, is the basis for Alex Ross Perry’s sophomore feature, The Color Wheel. Filmed in grainy black and white and laced with acidic one-liners that recall vintage Woody Allen mixed with early Cassavetes, this interesting venture may seem to be just an unassuming, perhaps pretentious critique about two misfits too smart for their own good. Exploring the consequences of doing anything to achieve your dreams versus letting your dreams die unceremoniously seems to be the crux of Perry’s film, however, what first plays like a bitchy paean to Phillip Roth literature eventually turns into one of the more intriguing resolutions you’ll be lulled into witnessing.
JR (Carlen Altman) is on her way to pick up her brother Colin (Perry) for a road trip to help her retrieve her belongings from her ex-boyfriend/Professor’s home. While Colin passively attempts to be sexual with his disinterested girlfriend Zoe (Ry Russo Young) only moments before JR’s arrival, we learn that JR’s whole family despises her and Zoe can’t understand why Colin would agree to help his sister in the first place. After a slight cat fight between sister and girlfriend, Colin chastises JR on her extremely messy Honda Accord as they take off to retrieve her belongings.
It turns out that the family neglected to invite JR on a recent family getaway (they took Zoe instead)…and also forgot to tell her about an aunt’s funeral. It seems that the family just can’t stand JR because she incessantly harps about her goals to achieve her dream as a TV news anchor, a dream which lands her in unhappy situations like living with her Professor, waiting by the phone for call backs, and not working a day job. Driving through a grainy black and white Middle America, the siblings encounter Christian sanctioned motels, vintage roadside diners, and a group of high school friends throwing a party where JR might be able to network. After the embarrassment of finding her ex with another female student already moved in and not to mention the slings and arrows of their old peers, the siblings retire to their grandparents’ cabin to commiserate.
At first, Perry’s film opens a bit jarringly, with dialogue that feels stiff and forced between Colin’s interactions with Zoe. Perry’s dry, terse language mixed with his quietly patronizing speech pattern sounds like a post-collegiate Michael Cera. But when JR comes on the scene and begins to open her mouth, the onscreen energy created by both of them is electric and hilarious. It’s immediately evident that they are comfortable with each other and the dialogue they’ve written together. However, when other characters are introduced into their strange little word, the smoothness of the film grinds to a halt.
While it’s evident that we’re supposed to believe that no one can understand this brother and sister duo better than themselves, The Color Wheel takes on an amateurish vibe when JR or Colin are forced to talk to others. And it’s not the awkward characters they themselves play, but that the bit players feel carelessly written. Beautifully conceived as a black and white homage to experimental cinema of the 70’s (Perry cites the photography of Robert Frank and the directorial efforts of Vincent Gallo as inspiration) The Color Wheel does manage to feel like a cinematic anachronism. As a whole, Perry’s film proves he’s a unique voice in the American independent scene, and his latest film should give you something to smirk about.
Reviewed on November 4th at the 2011 AFI Film Festival – Young Americans Programme. – November 4th, 2011.