Although ostensibly about a specific bodybuilder’s incredible true story, Ramblin’ Freak is also about the randomness of life. Parker Smith wants to make a film but he’s not sure of what. He buys a used camera off Ebay thinking maybe he’ll set it up on his dashboard as he drives cross country, but the camera has a different idea. Lightly used, it comes pre-loaded with an old tape of some bodybuilder, and it turns out that body builder is “the man whose arms exploded” so Smith naturally feels that the universe has told him to document this man’s story, and off he goes.
Ramblin’ Freak captures the aimlessness of youth. Smith, 24 years old, seems untethered, his plan for the documentary really no plan at all, and the finished film turns out to be largely unstructured: 50 minutes into the film we still haven’t seen any exploding arms, but we’ve seen plenty of Smith’s unironic mini van, his cat, and his Hipster facial hair. The film is dotted with seemingly random Youtube videos that slowly reveal the personal tragedy behind some of Smith’s listlessness.
Smith’s camera work leaves a lot to be desired. Don’t set your heart on perfectly composed shots. Don’t be surprised when the camera accidentally tilts up and you experience a scene via a shot of the ceiling, that may or may not have sound. And the story telling isn’t much better; unraveling Smith’s intentions feels like an opaque job that we’re not fairly equipped for. But as we made our way through hapless encounters, I began to feel that this disjointed film making was an accurate, authentic reflection on the film maker’s state of mind. If Smith lacks the vocabulary to express his pain, he’s letting his documentary do the talking for him, and it’s a mess.
All told, this is not the story of a body builder with exploding arms, or even about the journey towards that end. It’s really about a young man’s pain, his tentative exploration of it, his bravery and willingness to show it for what it is. Grief is never any one thing, and perhaps coping looks and feels different to this new Millennial generation. Parker Smith engages in this extended, 90-minute selfie and shows us a new kind of navel-gazing as he picks the scabs of his wounds and tries to heal himself.
Ramblin’ Freak screens at SXSW:
March 13: Alamo Ritz
March 16 & 18: Alamo Lamar