3 out of 5
Directed by: S.R. Binder
In 2022, at the time of this writing, we’re pretty aware of competitions like the one documented in Hands on a Hardbody: contestants win a something-or-other, generally a car, by remaining in contact with the item the longest. Sounds simple, sounds maybe dumb, and then you realize that such competitions can run multiple days, and then it just sounds… questionable. What’s the motivation? What’s worth it?
In 1997, when H.o.H.B. was made by director S.R. Binder, capturing a win-a-truck event as described above – a yearly thing in Longview, Texas – exposure of such a thing was more unique, and, given the time, a bit more “honest” than a modern effort might portray. It could be easy to joke about the various characters who gather to compete, and there are some questionable behaviors, perhaps, but the point here really feels just like a human interest story, and it is interesting. For (spoiler alert) 78 hours, which Binder whittles down to 90-some minutes, he pokes around and tries to get some insight on why folks are there, and what it’s worth, personally, to potentially win the hardbody truck, and allows for people’s quirks to present themselves naturally, and in a way where when something is odd, we all acknowledge it, and can muse or chuckle together.
The 90-some minutes are a bit of a stretch, though, as those sincerely interesting insights aren’t really pushed too hard, with Binder cutting moments up with artsy edits and wholly skipping out on moments that feel like they merited some attention – we don’t see the majority of the contestants leaving, for example – alongside lax attempts at finding some controversy: the judges aren’t paying attention! So-and-so from last year shouldn’t be able to compete again! At the same time, this casualness is what prevents the movie from feeling exploitative; like Binder would have just been there watching anyway.
Featuring a pleasant steel guitar-centered score by Neil Kassanoff, Hands on a Hardbody is equally pleasant, a glimpse at what we’d probably call a “simpler time;” whether or not that was actually the case, this type of honest, sincere filmmaking, rough around the edges or not, feels very true to a particular time and place, and it’s enjoyable to travel back there.