Late in “The Strongest Man,” the film’s protagonist reflects on what he calls his “little life.” The expression tells us a lot about the character, and a lot about the film.
“The Strongest Man” is focused on the subtleties of our day-to-day existence, and an understanding of our modest role in the grand scheme around us.
The protagonist in question is a Cuban-American named Beef, played by Robert Lorie. Beef is a humble man of few words, and has the curious distinction of being blessed with impressive physical strength as well as a natural talent for riding BMX bikes.
His skills are just enough to keep him afloat with odd jobs here and there, such as the work he does hanging paintings in the home of an eccentric neighbor named Mrs. Rosen (Lisa Banes). But his quiet nature and lack of ambition tie him to his modest circumstances, and his little life feels like little more than killing time with his best friend, Conan (Paul Chamberlain).
Conan is either the Pedro to Beef’s Napoleon or the Sancho Panza to Beef’s Don Quixote. He struggles with his own inferiority complex, brought on by growing up in the shadow of his successful older brother.
Eventually Beef’s existence shows signs of change, and he begins to mull the true meaning of his existence. He develops feelings for Mrs. Rosen’s niece Illi (Ashly Burch). His custom gold-colored bicycle is stolen. He and Conan attend a yoga class, where a shaman-like instructor named Guru Fred (Patrick Fugit) introduces them to the idea of a spirit animal.
Conan’s spirit animal is a dog. Beef’s is a chicken.
From its first scene, “The Strongest Man” presents a tone and vibe that shows a heavy influence from “Napoleon Dynamite” and the films of Wes Anderson. There is a consistent quirkiness in director/writer Kenny Riches’ presentation, as well as the deliberately paced, detached acting of the performers.
But there’s also a more somber feel, less lighthearted and more ponderous. Though most of the interactive dialogue in the film is presented in English, Beef’s consistent inner dialogue narrates the film in Spanish (with subtitles, of course).
The result is a film that has clear nods to the work of other filmmakers while clearly striving to find its own voice. It’s definitely an acquired taste (just like “Dynamite” and Anderson), but it’s most helpful to view the film as a fairy tale. Often Beef’s inner musings take the form of real-life characters unseen to the rest of the natural world. Most of Beef’s “little life” takes place in his own mind.
This idea of smallness is also communicated through the film’s setting. Though shot in Miami, Riches and cinematographer Tom Garner don’t give us the Miami we are accustomed to seeing on television or on the big screen. The Miami of “The Strongest Man” is nondescript, humble and ordinary. Characters wander by the beach from time to time, and the ocean is beautiful as it always is, but the people who inhabit this world live light years from the lifestyle that lured LeBron James and his talents from Cleveland almost five years ago.
In a way, “The Strongest Man” is one of Mrs. Rosen’s paintings. It gives an impression more than it tells a story.
“The Strongest Man” is not rated but would likely draw an R for profanity and some brief sexual content.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.