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bending steel - posterThe best thing about going to a film festival, chances are you get access to films that have very little or no buzz around them at all. After all, that’s why they are at the festival. I try to go into most screenings of any kind untainted as much as possible by hype or reviews so I can have free access to my own feelings about what I have seen. So when I was picking out the lineup of films I was gong to see at the Indianapolis Film Festival, Bending Steel fit the time I was going to be there and it had an exceedingly interesting premise – a 43-year old man named Chris Schoeck overcome with the passion for bending metal decides with the help of his mentor Chris “Haircules” Rider and other heavyweights in the community, to bring back the Oldetime Strongman who was once a ubiquitous part of the attractions at the turn of the century at places like Coney Island. How could I not give this one a chance?

Bending Steel - chris wonder

Chris “Wonder” Schoeck

To look at Chris “Wonder” Schoeck, you wouldn’t believe he would be capable of bending much, let alone horseshoes, giant nails and bars of steel, but he does. Schoeck is an intriguing character as he really doesn’t associate with anyone outside of his work as a personal trainer. “There’s always been a part of me that’s felt extra-terrestrial…” he says at one point. And it’s plainly obvious in his interactions we see throughout the film, especially with his parents who don’t understand why he’s doing this. When asked about why he wants to bend metal, he says, “There’s no feeling better than feeling that steel give,” and “When you’re bending steel, it feels like you can do anything.”

Chris performing for his parents.

Chris performing for his parents.

In between the jockeying Chris does to work on his craft, meeting with strongman legends like Dennis Rogers and Slim the Hammerman, and taking cues and directions from mentors within the community, he concentrates his time and efforts on a bar of steel that measures 2″x30″x3/8″ – this is the symbol of his struggle. He tries many times to bend this bar, but can’t. Once he and Chris Rider successfully pitch a revival show of the return of the Strongman to Coney Island, Chris makes it his goal to bend the bar beforehand if not at the show.

Chris in his "office"...

Chris in his “office”…

“This is the greatest struggle of my life,” Schoeck says as he stumbles time and again to bend the elusive bar. It stands as a proxy for his parents who nay-say about his steel bending exploits. He has no choice but to beat it and show his parents that this interest is not stupid and that it is worthwhile, for him as a profession and for him as a way to get the interaction with people that he needs.

I must bend you...

I must bend you…

And when, time after time, he is unable to bend this bar, he hangs it on the wall in his living room, a constant reminder of the challenge before him, the one thing that will validate his jump into this world of strongmen or crush his dreams if he can’t bend the bar.

Poster for the Coney Island Show.

Poster for the Coney Island Show.

So when the show comes around and Chris has done everything he can to train, he watches and waits as the others participating in the show go before him, careful to watch, excited to be a cheerleader for them all and mentally prepare for his first real performance as a strongman. Already aflutter with fear that he won’t be able to do one of his feats, Schoeck waits to see if his parents will show up to watch him perform. And in a trend that has been done so well in the documentary form in the last few years, the ending plays like a thriller – will he bend it or won’t he? Will his parents show or won’t they? The superb editing throughout really enhances the buildup.

Director Dave Carroll and his team made a really great film about a subject that is mostly forgotten and a person who is content to be hidden unless he is doing the one thing he loves and made it accessible, interesting and really applicable to our own lives. This is what great films can do, and I believe this is one. Hands down this was my favorite movie of the fest, and that includes the opening and closing night films, Joe Swanberg‘s Drinking Buddies with Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson and Anna Kendrick and Don Jon written and directed by and starring Joseph Gordon-LevittScarlett Johansson, and Julianne Moore. Both were fantastic movies, but they didn’t have the impact that Bending Steel and specifically Chris Schoeck had on me. This was the only film I rated a 5 out of 5 and deservedly so. I wish nothing but the best for this film as it continues to tour festivals and I truly hope it gets distribution as I think it is a film that could gather a large audience because it has such universal themes.

Do yourself a favor and check it out if you can. I was blown away.

Here’s the trailer: