`Hardbody' is a pickup of human spirit

May 07, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

"Hands on a Hardbody," which was shown at the Maryland Film Festival and opens today at the Charles Theatre, is a documentary about a contest to win a fully loaded Nissan pickup truck in Longview, Texas. But that's the very least of it.

In recording the experiences of a handful of Texans who gut out a grueling three-day marathon, S.R. Bindler has created a film of transcendent beauty and power. "Hands on a Hardbody" starts out as a slice of life and winds up being a funny and wise testimony to competition, human vulnerability, the unique tribal rituals of the contemporary South and, yes, the triumph of the human spirit. As one contestant suggests, "It's a human drama thing."

The year is 1995, when 24 people -- whose names were chosen at random -- gather at dawn at a Longview Nissan dealership. They are given instructions and pairs of gloves. The challenge? To stand next to the truck with at least one hand on its surface. The last person standing with a hand on the vehicle wins it.

Watching a bunch of people standing around a truck for more than 72 hours would strike most people as about as gripping as watching beige paint dry, but Bindler -- a Longview native who makes his feature film debut here -- struck pay dirt with his cast. No Hollywood dream factory could manufacture characters as vivid or endearing as these.

We meet Benny, who won the contest two years prior and knows all the angles of surviving with no sleep for days on hot concrete ("When you go insane, you lose"). We meet Kelli, a dead ringer for Sandra Bullock, who intends to sell the truck immediately and pay her bills.

We meet Norma, a devout Christian who insists that God wants her to have the truck, and Janis, and Paul, and J.D., and Russell, all of whom have a poignant reason for endangering their mental and physical well-being for the sake of a truck.

Bindler shot "Hands on a Hardbody" on videotape, which allowed him and his crew to stay with the contest until the bitter end, following virtually every contestant until they drop out (audiences will be surprised how powerfully they come to root for particular characters). As the contestants dwindle and the hours grow horribly long, the antic energy that animates "Hands on a Hardbody" at the beginning gives way to a more forgiving mood of tender humanism. One of this movie's most moving moments is the simple gesture of one gladiator helping another to fix her hair.

This isn't to suggest that "Hands on a Hardbody" isn't full of humor, most of it provided by Benny, whose arrogance is more than made up for by his team spirit and arsenal of Southern aphorisms ("If you can't run with the big dogs, you better stay on the porch with the pups").

Like "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" in which a dance marathon symbolized the desperation and cruelty of the Depression, "Hands on a Hardbody" can't help but break viewers' hearts in its depiction of the economic straits of some of its subjects.

But mostly, this fine film is purely entertaining. As a collection of memorable characters embarking on a quest chock full of emotion and drama, "Hands on a Hardbody" rivals most of its fictional counterparts for pure storytelling satisfaction. It's a human drama thing.

`Hands on a Hardbody'

Directed by S.R. Bindler

Released by Legacy Releasing

Rated PG (some brief language)

Running time: 97 minutes

Sun score: ****

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