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Review

Stephen Dorff shines in docu-style music drama 'Wheeler'

In a perfect world, Stephen Dorff would compete in next year’s Oscar race for his poignant disappearing act in “Wheeler,” a fictional tale given docudrama-like treatment by director Ryan Ross, who co-wrote with Dorff. It’s a terrific film that deserves far more attention than its low-profile release is likely to receive.

Camouflaged by effective facial prosthetics, wig and makeup, Dorff plays the charismatic, optimist Wheeler Bryson, a rural Texas ranch hand who, at 41, takes a better-late-than-never trip to Nashville for a shot at the brass ring. Wheeler’s been singing and writing country-tinged songs forever and, under no illusions, simply wants to see if there might be a serious audience for his work in Music City, U.S.A.

Turns out, there is — big-time. In short order, Wheeler’s living the dream: wowing Nashville’s real-life music notables (songwriter Bobby Tomberlin, Curb Records chief Jim Ed Norman, singer-songwriter Audrey Spillman and others, who all play themselves), performing and recording his stirring tunes and joyously visiting such famed local spots as Lower Broadway, the Bluebird Café and Ryman Auditorium.

He even gets to meet his idol Kris Kristofferson in a touching, beautifully played scene, which also features an affable Kristofferson singing the story-song “New Mister Me” from his 1995 album “A Moment of Forever.”

Dorff has long been a fine utility-player of an actor who, in an intriguing parallel to his pre-Nashville Wheeler Bryson, is perhaps not as much underrated as he is under-heralded. Although he’s worked steadily in films both bigger (“Blade,” “Public Enemies,” “Immortals”) and smaller (“Backbeat,” “Somewhere,” the superb “Motel Life”), he largely seems to fly under the Hollywood radar — despite his share of “it boy”-meets-“bad boy” publicity earlier in his career.

Even with its many virtues, “Wheeler” probably won’t make enough noise to move the needle much on Dorff, though it should. He brings such an affecting well of grace and empathy to his haunted character, avoiding — as does the script — easy clichés and familiar peccadilloes in lieu of something more singular, embracing and authentic.   

Dorff also displays solid skills as a singer-songwriter, imbuing his talented character with a lived-in voice and a compelling mix of humility, commitment and confidence. (An observer here aptly describes Wheeler as a cross between John Mellencamp, Waylon Jennings and Bruce Springsteen.)

The actor, who is the son of country music songwriter-composer Steve Dorff and the brother of recently deceased hit songwriter Andrew, wrote and performed the film’s score, plus wrote or co-wrote nine of its tunes. Especially memorable: “Showed Me the Way,” “She’s Only 20” and “Pour Me Out of This Town” (co-penned with Tomberlin and sibling Andrew.)    

In addition, those who think too few movies are made that speak to heartland audiences should find the evocative “Wheeler” a satisfying, distinctly American film experience, one with no small amount of down-home bonhomie, spirit and aspiration.

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‘Wheeler’

Rating: PG, for thematic elements, language, a nude image, and smoking throughout.

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

Playing: Arena Cinelounge, Hollywood; also on VOD

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