Beef (Robert Lorie), the protagonist of The Strongest Man, is a gentle giant — a bulky, muscular Cuban construction worker with a thick moustache and curly mop of hair who believes he is the strongest man in the world, even though he admits there may be other guys who are bigger than him. His best friend and co-worker is Conan (Paul Chamberlain), who lives with his Korean parents under the shadow of his overachieving older brother. Beef and Conan are an odd but likable pair, friends on the same strange vibe who like to quiz each other by asking questions such as, “If you could only hear one sound for the rest of your life, what would it be?”
Beef lives in a Spartan apartment with no furniture save for the bare mattress he sleeps on. He suffers from a touch of social anxiety, and his most prized possession in the world is his BMX bike, which is painted to look like it was made out of gold and which he rides everywhere. For extra money, he helps a rich art collector hang her paintings and runs errands for her. One day, he befriends her niece, Illi (Ashly Burch), who has moved back to Miami. She convinces Beef and Conan to attend a yoga class with her, where the professor (Patrick Fugit) asks everyone to meditate and settle on their spiritual animal. Beef decides on a chicken; Conan goes with a dog. But they take the assignment a bit too literally, setting out on a quest to find living specimens of their respective symbolic creatures.
Then Beef’s bike is stolen and the stoic, unflappable guy’s world is turned upside-down. Unlike many of the other locally made movies that have screened in recent years at the Miami International Film Festival, The Strongest Man, which was written and directed by Kenny Riches, has more on its mind than South Beach glitz, nightclubs and cliched storylines about drug dealers, the criminal underworld and tragic youth. This is an amiable, winsome comedy told in the deadpan style of Jim Jarmusch, filmed in vivid colors that are unmistakably Miami, and populated by eccentric, playful characters whose oddities blend right into the city’s fabric.
Beef’s curious demeanor and social awkwardness is never explained: Riches wants us to accept his characters as they are without judging them, then sends them off on a series of misadventures, including a foray into downtown Miami that turns into a scary ghost town populated with shadowy creatures with glowing eyes when the sun goes down. The film isn’t afraid to indulge in fantastical detours — Beef is stalked by a creature made out of spindly branches with red eyes who appears to him at random moments — but it also takes the growing attraction between Beef and Illi seriously, their romance budding until her aunt puts a stop to it, ruling him out as “tragically local.”
The Strongest Man may or may not appeal to audiences who aren’t attuned to South Florida’s particular wavelength, but the movie exudes a distinct, low-key aura that is recognizably Miami, and Riches makes the most out of his limited budget, giving the film a colorful sheen and polish. The picture goes on a bit longer than necessary — it seems to have at least three endings — but there’s no denying Riches has a storyteller’s talent, as well as a keen, intriguing vision of the world. See The Strongest Man now and say you knew Riches when.
Cast: Robert Lorie, Paul Chamberlain, Ashly Burch, Patrick Fugit, Lisa Banes, David Park.
Writer-director: Kenny Riches.
A Film Buff release. Running time: 98 minutes. In English and Spanish with English subtitles. Brief vulgar language, brief nudity, adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: O Cinema Mia