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Family and class issues darken The Color Wheel

Alex Ross Perry's The Color Wheel deals in binding family ties and the sterility of the comfortable classes. The New Yorker's second feature, shot in 16mm black and white, the film is an offhand, picturesque road-trip movie with a mock-epic Northeastern itinerary. It's also a cage-match brother-and-sister act, revolving around the complementary relationship between JR (Carlen Altman), a defiantly unemployable broadcast-journalism major, and her younger brother, Colin (Perry).

JR recruits Colin, who still lives with their parents in Pennsylvania, to come along as backup while she clears her belongings out of the Boston home of her professor and ex-lover, Neil (Bob Byington). It is at first a mystery to both Colin and the viewer as to why he has been selected for this task, for he and his sister have a habit of saying to one another, point-blank, the cruelest things that they can think of. "You make me, Mom and Dad, and my girlfriend sick to our stomachs every time you come up in conversation," is one of Colin's characteristic tossed-off lines.

Gloves-off verbal abuse is, it turns out, the mother tongue in The Color Wheel's world; JR and Colin's bickering subsides only when they team up against a common enemy — that snotty professor, the guests at a yuppie house party thrown by JR's estranged high-school BFF ("We were only ever friends with you because your family had a trampoline"), or the Puritanical Yankee motel owner who only rents to married couples and insists on seeing JR and Colin kiss.

Alex Ross Perry and Carlen Altman star in The Color Wheel.
Alex Ross Perry and Carlen Altman star in The Color Wheel.

Throughout The Color Wheel, JR and Colin let themselves be pushed, giggling nervously, toward the threshold between sibling and conjugal intimacy. Jokes are their safety-net way of talking about hangups, as in Colin's racist jibes, like a riff on his preference for white girls that also reflects an overarching theme of inbreeding.

The Color Wheel is a sticky, handcrafted movie, built around characters afflicted with something like "post-graduate delirium," to use a phrase from Tiny Furniture. As such, it bears a superficial resemblance to a whole spate of recent mealy-mouthed twenty-something-drift indies, of which Lena Dunham's movie is only the breakthrough example. This resemblance is strictly superficial, however. The Color Wheel's dialogue is delivered in blistering fusillades, and the characters are far too nasty and tetchy to ingratiate themselves — though they're vividly individual monsters of id.

Instead of cautiously toeing the realist line, the 26-year-old Perry takes a caricaturist's approach. The Color Wheel is a movie that's consistently unafraid to get confrontational and plain weird, with Colin's is-it-or-isn't-it-ironic racism, abrupt smothering close-ups, and scenes pushed past the boundaries of plausible motivation until they nosedive into absurdity. Like Howard Hawks's Twentieth Century, it's a travelogue movie about a couple whose impossible porcupine personalities leave them safe, finally, for nobody's company but each other's.

 
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