If you’ve ever seen a picture of Kumail Nanjiani since he bulked up for Eternals (or, more specifically, if you’ve seen the pack of jackals commenting on it), you’ll likely realize that the pressure for movie stars and men in general to maintain a certain body type is higher than it’s ever been. When the words “toxic masculinity” are used, it’s never just about how men treat women: it’s about how much men are hurt by the demands and limitations placed on them to be perceived as “manly,” as well. The Perfect David is a quietly chilling indictment of the quest to embody the ideal representation of masculinity, and the closer it gets to perfection, the more bizarre and unsettling it becomes.
David (Mauricio Di Yorio) is a sixteen-year-old bodybuilder who spends all of his free time working out and is completely committed to attaining ever-increasing levels of body mass. He’s not the only one with this obsession, though: his mother (Umbra Colombo) is a sculptor, and she views her son as a living piece of art in his own right. She is the one who reminds him to take the pills that will allow him to see quicker gains, who measures each muscle carefully to ensure that they’re in perfect symmetry. Indeed, they have a disturbingly codependent, almost incestuous relationship. The way that she caresses his torso is unquestionably sensual; her gentle ministrations as she shaves his armpits before a competition strangely erotic. As his bodybuilding hobby forces him to become more distanced from his friends and the social life of a normal teenager, he grows ever closer to his mother.
David’s lengths to achieve the perfect body are alarming, as he pumps his body full of steroids to bulk up faster. This is, it would seem, his effort to be seen as the ideal image of a strong, powerful man, seemingly contradicted by his reliance on his mother and his inability to have sex with a female classmate when the opportunity presents itself. There are times when it seems like he crumbles under the increasing pressure placed on his shoulders and questions everything he’s asked to sacrifice in pursuit of this goal.
Although any bodybuilder intends to create an aesthetically appealing physique, director Felipe Gomez Aparicio goes to great lengths to subvert these expectations. He highlights the darker side of gym culture: the endless hours of weightlifting, constantly feeling inadequate when presented with a fellow bodybuilder who is stronger or more defined, and the reliance on potentially dangerous steroids. But there’s also something to the way that he films the human form that completely depersonalizes it. He focuses on specific body parts, individual limbs in closeup, so much so that you almost forget there’s an actual human person on camera. It’s complete objectification, the absolute separation of the physical and the personal. As David becomes more invested in bodybuilding, the more his identity becomes entirely subsumed by the hobby.
Di Yorio’s performance as David is gentle and understated. He comes across more like a blank canvas than an actual person; as large and powerful as he is, he’s still in many ways a child trying to figure out how to be a man. He has brief moments where he allows David’s personality to shine through: a slightly arrogant pride as he shows off for the girls at a friend’s party, utter captivation when he sneaks into a bodybuilding competition just to watch. We want him to become his own person, to find his own definition of masculinity, but he is young and allows others (specifically, his domineering mother) to hew in stone the vision of what a man is supposed to look and act like.
The Perfect David has its disturbing qualities, especially in the toxic relationship between David and his mother, but it’s never gruesome in its depiction of a worryingly extreme bodybuilding routine. If anything, it’s a bit sad, a plaintive questioning of the lengths a boy feels he needs to go to in his coming-of-age. If he does this, will that be enough to fulfill society’s expectations of masculinity? And beyond that, is there anything that will be enough?