It's unsurprising that a film like Kenny Riches' The Strongest Man would premiere at Sundance -- the festival for this strange film -- but less surprising that it would make its way back home for the Miami International Film Festival, because this is a movie that couldn't have been made anywhere but Miami.
The Strongest Man is the story of an anxiety-ridden Cuban man who loses his prized golden bicycle. Though the search and rescue theme is familiar enough, Riches's film is about more than the recovery of a treasured object. Rather the film delves into a kind of surreal self-examination.
Throughout the film, the lead character Beef, played by Robert Lorie, refers to himself as the strongest man in the world. Riches plays Beef's affliction to comedic and dramatic effect by showing Beef accidentally breaking small objects, or in larger shows of force like running through walls. No one expects the strongest man in the world to be consumed with the kind of insecurity Beef feels, and yet he is.
Beef's best friend, the ironically named Conan (Paul Chamberlain), and his love interest, Illy (Ashly Burch), accompany Beef on his journey. They characters play off each other for both laughs and introspection. If anything, the missing bike story at the center of The Strongest Man feels like a thin excuse for Riches to explore the depths of his film's characters, for better or worse.
The Strongest Man is a local film and Riches' sense of Miami's landscape borders on magical realism. Hooded beings linger on the streets of downtown Miami at night, green eyes glowing, menacing Beef and his friends. Riches and director of photography Tom Garner, have found just the right way to capture Miami's beauty, they deliver gorgeous compositions, using the lens to simultaneously celebrate and critique the city and its residents. It may not be the portrait of Miami that one expects, but it's entrancing nevertheless.
The film's comedic beats are subtler than expected, its narrative often veers closer to drama than the comedy that it bills itself as. But that's not necessarily a bad thing, even though that back and forth can sometimes results in tonal inconsistencies.
The Strongest Man is at its best when it's ignoring plot and romance and instead exploring the texture and depth of the film's introspective characters. As such, it may not be as tight and charming as Riches' first film, Must Come Down, but it leaves one hoping he'll continue exploring this weird little city called Miami.
The Strongest Man is playing at O Cinema Miami Beach on Monday, March 9, at 7 p.m. and the Tower Theater on Wednesday, March 11, at 9:30 p.m. as part of the Miami International Film Festival. Tickets cost $13. Visit miamifilmfestival.com.
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