Writer-Director Kenny Riches newest film, The Strongest Man (debuting in Sundance’s NEXT section), is a comedy above all, with an intended focus on individual legacy. The film, which drops today on VOD, grapples with this major thematic idea through incidental nods and a striking visual style, yet the profundity of the consistently salient images never fully align with the incidental nature of the underlying narrative. A subdued comedy with some truly inventive gags, The Strongest Man is the culmination of an original voice on the rise more than the triumph of a writer-director already on top.
The hulking Beef (Robert Lorie) is an unassuming man who was able to put his strengths to good use, literally, as a construction worker. A bilingual Cuban American, Beef’s simple life is plagued with insecurity and doubt. Only ever feeling truly free when riding his golden BMX bike, he maintains a simple existence to avoid any unforeseen chaos. When a potential love interest, Illi (Ashly Burch), invites Beef and his constant companion, Conan (Paul Chamberlain), to a yoga session, the two aimless men exercise a dubious purpose — finding their spirit animals. Clinging desperately onto this misunderstood mission, Beef and Conan believe that once the animal counterparts (a chicken and dog respectively) have been acquired, their unsorted lives will become carefree and easy. Blinded by this quest, the two men begin to lose their grip on what little rays of hope they still possessed. After Beef’s bicycle is stolen, his world is opened to all the anxieties that have quietly plagued him his whole life, and Conan’s search for a four-legged companion only opens him up to more insecurity and self-doubt.
Set in the vibrant, multicultural Miami, The Strongest Man shows us the little-explored neighborhoods of the massive metropolis. Hardly the neon-lit mecca in Michael Bay’s Bad Boys or the violence-ridden crime haven of Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, the streets we get are far from any white-sand beaches or crystal blue waters. A reflection of the main character, Riches’ Miami is presented as a city comfortable with its shifting identity, yet unable to rid itself of the seedy darkness at its core. Constantly in flux, Miami’s evolution from culture-rich neighborhoods to bland, high-rise condos serve to invalidate Beef’s desire for greatness and higher meaning. If one of the most diverse cities in America can be disassembled and rebuilt as yet another interchangeable beach town, what chance does Beef have to remain in the memories of his descendants, let alone in the footnotes of history?
Riches and first-time cinematographer Tom Garner capture an intoxicating series of stills and moving shots that simply put the narrative to shame. What would otherwise be a series of dull moments between two shiftless roustabouts (marked by some clever moments of intimacy and humor), The Strongest Man is lifted to the realm of near-art, purely by its association with the enrapturing visuals. Daring lighting choices, meticulously-balanced framing and cunning direction hint at the possible greatness of Riches’ future projects.
While The Strongest Man’s richness of flavor was a delightful surprise, it cannot make up for the lack of meat on the bare-bones narrative. Charming performances consciously dulled down to fit the lackluster characters become as monotonous as the story’s outright refusal to develop. Although far better than expected, The Strongest Man does not live up to its intriguing introduction and instead dissolves into an ambiguous string of muted jokes and awkwardness.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of sunny San Diego, California. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.