James Jay Edwards reviews Wheels, a coming-of-age film written and directed by Paul Starkman and starring Arnstar and Shyrley Rodriguez. (1091 Pictures)
While growing up in Brooklyn, filmmaker Paul Starkman was obsessed with two things: movies and hip hop. So, it just seems fitting that he would make a movie like Wheels.
Wheels is about an aspiring DJ named Max (Arnstar) who is paying his dues in the hip hop scene as he tries to realize his dreams. It’s also about Max’s brother, Terry (Joshua Boone), who has just been released from prison after a stint for car theft. Max and Terry both have similar goals in life—to make the most of the cards that they have been dealt—but find themselves working towards those goals in very different ways.
(Wheels, theatrical release poster, 1091 Pictures)
There’s more to Wheels than that. There’s also the fact that the two brothers are tasked with taking care of their Grandmother (Dorothi Fox). Max also meets and falls for a dance instructor named Liza (Shyrley Rodriguez) who represents the change he needs to get on with his life. And then, there’s a thug named Oscar (Kareem Savinon) who has his fingerprints all over both of the brothers’ lives.
Starkman came up with the genesis for Wheels while in film school. He cut his teeth in the business directing reality television shows like Ink Master and Top Chef, and finally got to shoot his passion project in 2016 after a successful Kickstarter campaign. One gets the feeling that the movie is partially autobiographical, either based on Starkman’s own life or on the lives of people he knows. And that personal touch comes through loud and clear.
(Wheels, 1091 Pictures)
From a story standpoint, Wheels is a fairly simple coming-of-age story. It’s even predictable, despite its multiple interconnecting layers. The arcs that both Max and Terry go through are ones that movie fans have seen countless times before.
What really makes Wheels stand out is its look and sound.
Along with cinematographer Ariel Boles (also a reality TV veteran), Starkman crafts a visually striking film. Wheels was shot on location in Brooklyn in black and white, a decision that gives it a nostalgic style without ever allowing it to feel old. Boles captures the action with creative angles that utilize all four corners of the frame as well as the back and foreground. Whether it’s using shallow depth of field to keep some characters slightly out of focus or shooting through a cracked pane of glass to add texture, there’s always something interesting—and beautiful—to look at in Wheels.
(Wheels, 1091 Pictures)
And then, there’s the music. Of course, the soundtrack to Wheels is pumping. But it’s not just the usual hip hop suspects. Wheels is packed with a perfect mixture of soul and hip hop ranging from The Soul Brothers Six to Kurtis Blow, stuff that really shows off a knowledge of the genre and subculture. Add in some more modern tracks and a streetwise score from composer Mario Grigorov (who also scored The Paperboy) and you’ve got a soundscape that’s just as exciting as the streets upon which the movie was shot.
Wheels sometimes leans a bit too heavily on its unique look and sound, and that results in forgetting its own story for a moment or two. Which, for what it is, is perfectly fine. It’s a love letter to a certain Brooklyn hip hop scene and, story or not, it does its job. And it does it well. Come for the energetic music, stay for the stunning imagery. A winning combination.
Check out the podcast Eye On Horror for more with James Jay Edwards, and also features Jonathan Correia and Jacob Davison.