Hot Docs Review: The Bodybuilder and I

What an astounding debut film by Bryan Friedman. If Werner Herzog had made Little Miss Sunshine, the results might look something like The Bodybuilder and I -- brave, funny, unflinching, a little crazy but always starkly honest.

Bill Friedman was once a workaholic lawyer, who provided well for his family; well enough to live in a comfortable mansion in the suburbs. Aside from material wealth, however, he had given little else to his family, which ultimately led to two broken marriages and decades of resentment from his sons. After his second divorce, Bill spiraled into deep depression; he sold the house and left his lucrative job. Soon approaching 60, what happened next would stun and even embarrass his family. Bill began transforming his body, radically; turning his white-collar love-handles into bulging, ripping muscle. He had, in essence, built up an "armour shield" to protect himself from the hurt and pain in his life.

When we meet Bill, he is already primed to compete in a national bodybuilding contest. We see him in training for his second chance at the top prize (after placing third the previous year), which may also be his last since the competition's age brackets do not extend beyond 60, and being in the twilight of his years, it may also be the final hope for personal redemption. And so, we are privy to the bizarre, ironically effeminate world of competitive bodybuilding where half-naked men spend time in tanning salons and practice choreographed flex routines to the maudlin tune of Celine Dion.

Though what makes this film so compelling is that the documentarian is Bill's son, Bryan, whose intentions for filming his estranged father are always clear: to come to terms with the man who was never there, and to use the opportunity as a catalyst for healing. Fortunately for the viewer, the film never feels like an easy vehicle for Bryan to vent and exorcise his demons; despite being an eloquent and convincing speaker (so is Bill), never once do we suspect that he's trying hard to make us feel sorry for him or anyone else. It's a sign of confidence, and it shows especially in the delicate way the emotional peaks and valleys are executed -- we laugh if we need to and cry if we feel like it but the cues are never overemphasized.

Roger Ebert once noted that he rarely cries during sad movies, but finds himself weeping uncontrollably whenever inherently good characters triumph over great obstacles. By the end of The Bodybuilder and I, something good does happen, but in the most unexpected and truthful ways -- and I was genuinely moved.

It's a colourful and complex story with as many poignant moments as there are hilarious ones. And for a first feature by a 26 year old documentary filmmaker, it's a remarkable accomplishment with markings of great potential.

Highly recommended.

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