Film Review: Stronger

Refreshingly honest and down-to-earth portrait of the struggle of Jeff Bauman, who lost his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing.
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On April 15, 2013, 27-year-old Costco deli worker Jeff Bauman was desperate to mend his relationship with his ex-girlfriend, Erin, who was running in the Boston Marathon. And so he made a big homemade sign and stood near the finish line to cheer her on—only to have his life change forever when two homemade bombs exploded just feet away from where he waited. Jeff lost both legs, and his struggle, physical and psychological, is the dramatic core of David Gordon Green’s new film, Stronger.

There’ve been many fact-based movies with the theme of triumph over adversity (last year’s Bleed for This being just one example), but Stronger generally avoids the familiar tropes of such inspirational tales. For Jeff Bauman is not your typical movie hero: He’s a working-class screw-up from a raucous family and circle of friends out of David O. Russell’s also Boston-set The Fighter, and he’s certainly not one to eagerly embrace his new identity as a symbol of “Boston Strong.” As the Brits are wont to say, Stronger “takes the piss” out of such elevated notions.

Yes, Jeff (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) ultimately does accept his emblematic role in post-attack Boston culture, but Green’s film is more about what lies beneath the veneer of the media’s portrait of a hero survivor. Beyond the ordeal of his physical rehabilitation, Jeff is almost equally buffeted by very messy familial and romantic relationships, the stress of reliving the horrific moments that maimed him, and a whole city’s unrealistic expectations of him. John Pollono’s script, adapted from the book Bauman wrote with Bret Witter, doesn’t romanticize any of this, shunning the usual uplifting clichés.

Most intriguingly, Stronger is just as much about the anguish of Erin (Tatiana Maslany, the wondrous star of “Orphan Black” here getting a well-earned big-screen showcase). Erin had pretty much given up on the undependable Jeff when tragedy struck; in its wake she feels obligated to stay by his side and become his caretaker, especially since she’s the reason he was there at that finish line. Maslany brilliantly reveals all of Erin’s conflicted feelings: her frustration, anger and weariness as well as her evolving love for her unfortunate friend.

Gyllenhaal, who has emerged as one of the best actors of his generation (setting aside his loony, Nicolas Cage-ish turn in Okja), again proves his range, nailing the Boston accent and being perfectly credible as a working-class rogue. And, as he did in the boxing drama Southpaw, he fully commits to the arduous physical demands and traumatic emotional moments of the role. (Special mention must go to the visual effects team who create the illusion that the actor has lost his legs, and makeup artist Donald Mowat for his work in the bandaging scenes.)

In the spirit of The Fighter’s Oscar-winning matriarch Melissa Leo, Britain’s Miranda Richardson glams down and turns up the Boston bawdiness as Jeff’s volatile mom, who loves her son’s newfound celebrity and doesn’t always seem cognizant of the toll it’s taking. Carlos Sanz is also a standout as Carlos Arredondo, a bystander who tended to Jeff after the blast; their moving reunion is intercut with a harrowing recreation of those fateful minutes.

Shooting in and around Boston, director Green again shows the aptitude for capturing authentic environments that characterized his early films before he broke through with the comedy hit Pineapple Express. His levelheaded approach to the subject only makes this drama of reluctant heroism truer and, indeed, stronger.

Click here for cast and crew information.