Sandwiched between an opening scene that might be the film’s worst (and incongruous to the rest of the picture), and a finale that goes on for ten minutes too long, writer/director Kenny Riches essentially creates a sizzle reel of mood and style that that acts as a calling card to Hollywood with “The Strongest Man.” Indeed, just before the Sundance Film Festival premiere of his latest feature effort, Riches signed a deal with UTA, his first agency. And credit to whichever agent at the company took a moment and rolled the dice on Riches and his film. “The Strongest Man” isn’t flashy, moves to it’s own unique rhythms, and glides along with a very specific sense of humor. But to the observant eye, and patient viewer who decides to hop along with the film’s welcoming tone, they’ll witness the voice of a filmmaker bursting with ideas and a number of ways to share them, even if he hasn’t quite found his storytelling footing just yet.
The film is told through the eyes of the bulky, appropriately named, Beef (Robert “Meatball” Lorie). Best friends since third grade with the slight and nerdy Conan (Paul Chamberlain), it seems they’ve bonded over their outsider status. They both live in the less glamorous parts of Miami, come from immigrant families (Cuban and Korean respectively), work a construction job that doesn’t seem to be too labor intensive, and spend the rest of their time arrested in young adulthood, with a sensation of wanting validation, grasping at modest ambitions, but with little idea of how to realize them. It speaks to where Beef’s head is at, when, during one of the many internal monologues that drive the film, he notes illogically that while he doesn’t want children, he wants grandchildren, so he can tell them about his future life of integrity and success, found through struggle.
As the film ambles along, with the theft of Beef’s beloved solid gold BMX driving the unhurried action, the thematic undercurrents of “The Strongest Man” bubble up and occasionally simmer. When Illy (Ashly Burch) arrives back in town from school, not only does she represent a love interest for Beef, but begins to exacerbate some the social and financial limitations of his own modest life. Illy lives with her art-collecting aunt (Lisa Banes), literally across the street from Beef’s modest single home (that contains no furniture except a bed), in an expensive condo steps from the beach. When she has a birthday party, it’s at a friend’s nice home, with a pool, surrounded by her upwardly mobile friends, and Beef becomes acutely aware of a world beyond his current means. In a man of few words, like Beef, these feelings manifest themselves in anxiety attacks that grow increasingly more severe as his fondness for Illy grows. Meanwhile, Conan still lives at home with his parents, forever in the shadow of his more accomplished older brother, Jimmy (Freddie Wong), who not only has a steady career, but a room full of trophies highlighting his athletic abilities as well.
“The Strongest Man” reaches to say something about the American Dream, and perhaps makes it’s sharpest cut at the hollowness of that facade, when Illy’s aunt coolly tells her, “I can help you give me the things that we both want.” The message implied is that there’s always someone holding the purse strings, and nothing given is every truly free. Unfortunately, Riches is never able to be as vulnerable behind the camera as his characters are in the story. “The Strongest Man” is never too far away from a quirky joke to keep things from getting too thoughtful or ponderous, but it’s those tenors in which the film really resonates. As good as he is, Patrick Fugit‘s brief appearance as a freaky German spiritual guru is indicative of Riches worst comedic tendencies, and it simply belongs in a different film. There are times when Beef and Conan veer towards Forrest Gump simpleton status, which undermines the more interesting textures of their characters, and borders on mocking instead of relating to them.
However, it speaks to Riches talent that “The Strongest Man” is so consistently interesting, particularly on a technical level, and it smooths over some of those narrative lapses and choices. Perhaps the best way to describe the style of filmmaking on display (for both better and worse), is that it’s like Terrence Malick directing “Napoleon Dynamite.” Riches gets first-rate photography from cinematographer Tom Garner (doing remarkable work on his first credited film), and, particularly early on in the movie, the camera glides with confidence as it tracks Beef and Conan riding through the streets and corridors of the lesser known areas of Miami. Beef’s anxiety, manifested by creature with glowing red eyes, instantly recalls Apichatpong Weerasethakul‘s “Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall Past Lives,” which a small handful of sequences that are reminiscent of the quick cutting montages in Mike Mills‘ “Beginners.” Clearly, Riches has a diverse playbook he’s influenced by, but it never feels inauthentic. The director puts his own stamp on everything thanks to a script that no else would’ve written but him, uneven as it is. Even the sound design is impressive. This is a film in which every element has been well thought out and executed.
While I wish the movie had held on to its beautiful note of melancholy before over-explaining itself, and stumbling toward a more conventional resolution in its final moments, “The Strongest Man” displays the the kind of talent you want to see get a few more dollars, and another chance to tell a story on their own terms. Weird and honest about the malaise that can settle into driftless adulthood, “The Strongest Man” suggests that the only way to way forward is to accept where we are first. [B]