In “The Strongest Man,” Kenny Riches tells an unconventional story that has the makings of a cult classic: idiosyncratic images and characters along with good chemistry among the actors. The film achieves some of these but drags out too long and could have benefited from a more defined plot.
“Man,” which made its world premiere at this year’s Sundance, first screened in Miami Tuesday at O Cinema Miami Beach as part of Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival.
“Man” tells the story of two friends Beef (played by Miami artist Robert “Meatball” Lorie) and Conan the Korean (Paul Chamberlain). They are construction workers who live in Miami and navigate the difficulties of fulfilling their ultimate potential with respect to family, relationships and themselves.
Although it has elements of a buddy comedy, “Man” contains elements of an absurdist, existential story that is more akin to a Beckett production.
Much of the film’s central conflicts are internal. Beef, who believes he is the strongest man in the world, can’t shake off a never-ending anxiety. Riches does not articulate the source of this anxiety, and we are meant to accept Beef for who he is – a timid, Cuban whose main passion in life is riding his golden BMX bike.
And Conan isn’t as different. He lives in the shadow of his high-achieving older brother, and desires his parents’ validation.
Beef and Conan then attend a meditation class at the request of Beef’s neighbor Illi (Ashly Burch), where they discover their spirit animals – a chicken and dog, respectively. The animals manifest as Beef and Conan confront their personal insecurities.
Despite this strange plot, Riches has a knack for visualizing a very character-driven story. Long, drawn-out scenes take advantage of Miami’s neighborhoods, such as Downtown and parts of Miami Beach. Riches moves away from the glitzy, conventional portrayals of South Beach to portray a different Miami – one that locals, including those in Tuesday’s O Cinema, can believe.
Riches himself moved to Miami about three years ago and believes the city lends itself to interesting stories.
“Miami is its own little island within the U.S., so as I wrote the details of the city, it kind of became its own character,” he said in an interview with The Miami Hurricane. “Everything in Miami feels so particular to this place that, yeah, there’s a lot of material.”
Beef and Conan are pretty hilarious. They have an interesting chemistry with one another, and his physical appearance aside, Beef interacts with people so awkwardly that it’s hard to take him seriously.
Conan really shines as he struggles for his parents’ validation. His comedic scenes are more slapstick in contrast to Beef. In the scene when Beef and Conan attend Illi’s birthday party, Conan tries to impress a girl and he ends up spilling beer on her. His only reaction is to submerge himself in the pool.
My one qualm with “The Strongest Man” is that it’s unnecessarily long. Once the film’s climax is reached, there are about three possible endings. Again, in light of its possible existential source material, three endings would be appropriate, but then Riches chooses to end “Man” with a more definitive resolution.
It’s nice to see more diverse films coming out of Miami. This is the main takeaway from Riches’ film. The story and its message may or may not stay with you once you leave the theater, but the images of the city and its many dogs and chickens will be permanently ingrained.