Character studies are volatile beasts. It’s not until you’ve seen one you don’t quite connect with, that you appreciate how gutsy they really are from a storytelling perspective. What’s ironic is that the more genuine the study is, the riskier the attempt at being embraced. Human imperfection is all around us, we all deal with it in our daily lives; whether it’s at home, with a relative, with a colleague at work or in front of the mirror, the boxed-in colloquialism of “no one’s perfect” rings true every single day. When a character study captures that, it’s generally considered to be something positive, and adds to the depth of the piece. But the trouble is, just like meeting new people in life, sometimes a new discovery can only end in one way; scratching them off your list ’cause they just don’t fit for you. The imperfections are too heavy for the scales of likeness. Though the ambition is commendable and the genuine depth of study should be applauded, Stan Pleskun is a character we’d ultimately scratch off our list after meeting him in Zachary Levy‘s “Strongman.”
The formless narrative of Levy’s documentary doesn’t let Stanless Steel out of its sights; we follow the strongest man in the world of bending steel and metal as he pursues that which is rightfully his, while making futile grasps at fame and recognition. While trying to get his career in order and looking for audiences around the world who are interested in seeing his amazing feats of strength, which involve picking three people up with a single finger, doing leg-presses with trucks and bending pennies, Stan also has to deal with his tenderly passive family. An alcoholic younger brother whose dream of one day owning a trailer park doesn’t even sound like it could come true, a senile father who walks in and out of the frame like a Simpsons character, an overly caring mother who is slowly losing her own sense of reality and, most importantly Barbara, Stan’s girlfriend of two years and designated show announcer who can’t seem to ever get it right. This relationship between Stan and Barbara, Stan’s thoughts on it and his struggles of being caged in by the confines of its commitment play almost an equal role to Stan’s own ambition at being recognized as a champion.
Stan is a peculiar guy, whose fascinating thought process carries the majority of the weight in this documentary. He’s like a hybrid version of David Brent from U.K.’s “The Office” and Alan from “The Hangover” but with a much, much kinder soul, expressed in one of his many moments of contemplation when he says that, “Only if you love yourself, can you then project it on someone else — or at least try to” in order to help them and make a contribution in their lives. Stan’s resolve to do good and be a good role model for children is captured quite naturally by Levy, and there is a subtle magnetic pull towards Stan and his surroundings which can take one by pleasant surprise if only because the world of bending steel and metal is something new and rarely uncovered by media or pop culture. What goes on during the preparation for a spectacle of such intense force, which doesn’t even last three seconds; the mental and physical fortitude needed for a chance at success in a world that’s built around gimmicks and shock value; the viewer becomes privy to all this and more through the singular eyes of Stanless Steel. And while there’s plenty of endearment, sentimentality and raw humor to be found here, the camera catching some wonderful reaction moments and responses to Stan – whether he’s on stage performing or telling someone to take “mental responsibility” of their life – this reviewer had about enough of Stan’s antics and Barbara’s lukewarm jadedness by the hour mark.
Stanless Steel’s motto is “Mind Over Matter” because he attributes most of his success not to the power in his body but the power between his ears. Trouble is, Stan gets a little drunk on this power and goes around controlling people and complaining a lot. Not to take anything away from Levy’s heartwarming approach into the unfamiliar world of strongmen, but it would take more than just a bit of willpower to stay in the same room with Stan and his inflated ego for more than half an hour. In examining the life of one man without so much as blinking, “Strongman” is full of scenes where it’s actually matter that’s prevailing over the mind. The handful of scenes that feature Stan berating a seemingly indifferent Barbara, frustrated and fed up over some inner demons that are never clearly described start paving a path towards a dead-end where no apparent conflict or resolution lies. As much warmth as there is in Strongman, and Stan’s struggle for recognition builds up to full human capacity wherein sympathy reigns on a universal level, Stan is his own worst enemy — stubborn, complicated and victimized — and ultimately succeeds in bending the magnetic field of attraction against himself. The good news is that this is just our opinion of one strange and undoubtedly fascinating character whom we still wish the very best to for the future. There is still more than enough to admire and see in Levy’s documentary to warrant an easy recommendation. [B-]
“Strongman” is now available on VOD and DVD.