South Brunswick, New Jersey’s Stanley Pleskun has a talent: He’s extremely strong. Using only his legs, he can lift a 10-ton truck, if only for a moment, and only far enough for an assistant to slip a piece of paper beneath the treads as proof. Billing himself as “the strongest man in the world” with the qualifier “at bending steel,” the stringy-haired, fortyish muscleman dreams of turning his talent into a career, but lacks the needed imagination and showmanship. He can bend pennies and horseshoes, sure, but what do you do for an encore? Even his stage name, “Stanless Steel,” needs a little more thought, though Pleskun seems to believe that persistence alone will take him where he needs to go.
Strongman, a first documentary feature from Zachary Levy, captures a moment of crisis in the strongman’s career, one that begins optimistically and ends in setbacks. Levy’s thin-on-exposition, heavy-on-vérité approach never makes it clear whether that’s part of a pattern or an isolated chapter. Used to working parking lots and basement birthday parties, Levy gets a booking on a cheesy British variety show where a more-polished—and to Pleskun’s eyes, phony—performer talks about a life of steady work and $2,000 bookings that remain out of Pleskun’s reach. But his attempts to reach that plateau prove frustrating, and Pleskun does little to hide his disappointment from his steady girlfriend Barbara—a former model who’s clearly seen some hard times—and his family, a collection of aging eccentrics and an unrepentant-addict brother.
Though Levy’s film feels shapeless at times, what it loses in structure, it gains in handheld intimacy, letting viewers get to know the mercurial but fundamentally sweet Pleskun. Though he doesn’t doubt his own abilities—and stays true to a self-styled health-food diet that includes eating forbidding stacks of corn-on-the-cob—he lets each setback hit him hard, letting drinking bring out his bitterness and dismissing his rival at a gathering of The Association Of Oldetime Barbell & Strongmen as a phony. Barbara, whom Pleskun recruits as his announcer despite her shortage of aptitude, ends up getting the worst of it, and the final stretch of the film becomes a portrait of two people who may need and love each other, but sometimes can’t be in the same cluttered room. Not that they plan to be there forever. Stardom, after all, is always just one good gig away.