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NEW YORK — An unassuming little doc that slowly generates a surprising level of investment in its subject’s odd quest, Dave Carroll‘s Bending Steel follows an “old-time strongman” whose attempt to become a sideshow performer addresses his longstanding discomfort with being watched by others. The subject alone may not attract much attention, but fest bookings should generate good word of mouth for a film that mixes its character study with colorful helpings of sideshow history.
Chris Schoeck, a lifelong New Yorker who feels like a stranger among so many people, admits he’s never been comfortable with or invested energy in human relationships. He never invited his parents to school athletic events; he lives in an apartment whose just-so tidiness suggests that others rarely visit.
But like a stutterer who tackles his handicap by taking up debate, Schoeck — a very fit but average-sized man — has decided to pursue a strongman career requiring not just feats of strength but the wooing of small crowds. Having turned a basement storage locker into a specialized gym — mangled horseshoes and 60-penny nails pile up as proof of his progress — he enlists established strongman Chris Rider (whose stunts involving his long red locks earned him the name Hairculese) to teach him how to present himself to others.
We watch as Rider dispenses tips on everything from where to stand onstage to what kind of banter will alienate onlookers, then travel with the men to meet others in the he-man fraternity — men, like Slim “the Hammer Man” Farman, who carry on the vaudeville legacy of Joe “The Mighty Atom” Greenstein. The warmth of their encouragement makes for stark contrast with Schoeck’s visits with his parents, whose skepticism suggests a longstanding dynamic the film only hints at.
While Carroll is entertaining us with tales of vaudeville and amusement-park heroes, Schoeck — displaying a tendency toward clear-eyed self-criticism that wins our sympathy if not quite our affection — struggles with a challenge that may be his great white whale: a two-inch wide bar of structural steel that simply refuses to bend, no matter how often he tackles it.
By the time we reach Schoeck’s public debut on a Coney Island stage, we know him well enough to be certain he’ll attempt something even his supporters say he’s not ready to do. The sight of this very strong man tackling a moment of complete vulnerability gives Bending Steel, however briefly, the hold-your-breath drama of a fine sports film.
Production Company: Bending Steel LLC
Director: Dave Carroll
Screenwriters: Dave Carroll, Ryan Scafuro
Producer: Ryan Scafuro
Director of photography: Ryan Scafuro
Music: Fernando Martinez
Editor: John Hoyt
Sales: Josh Braun, Submarine
No rating, 92 minutes
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