From Director David Gordon Green comes Stronger, the story of Jeff Bauman, a survivor of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing whose story inspired millions.
Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) was a nice guy with an honest job at Costco. His ex-girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany), says that he never shows up for anything. In order to prove himself to her, Jeff tells her he’s going to see her run in the Boston Marathon. Sadly, Jeff waited for her at the finish line and got caught in one of the two explosions that rocked the event, losing his legs below the knees. The film then follows Jeff through his recovery, his struggles with fame, and his attempts to reconcile with Erin, while fighting off the worst parts of himself.
Stronger is a powerful and inspiring film, but what sets it apart from other films of its ilk is that it doesn’t shy away from the more difficult aspects of Jeff’s recovery. It’s a gritty inspirational story, if that makes sense. The film presents Jeff as a fully-formed character that has flaws, not just a symbol for people to rally behind or make themselves feel better. There are moments in the film where his behavior makes him downright unlikable, but the audience knows from everything that has led to that point that that’s not all there is to him and they still root for him. You cringe when you see a person you like in a compromising situation, especially if it is of their own doing and Jeff does that a lot throughout Stronger, making the film a tough watch at times.
While the film is definitely inspiring, I really liked how it went beyond the empty slogans and platitudes that people use to comfort themselves to really look at how the actual victims of crimes like this go on with their lives. Slogans like “Boston Strong” and “Never Forget” are nice for the masses to rally behind, but they do nothing for the guy trying to get his life back together after losing his legs. A lot of the soft condemnation for these slogans comes in the form of Jeff’s family, especially his alcoholic mother, Patty (Miranda Richardson). These people don’t know what to say to Jeff to comfort him, so they say, “Boston Strong,” a lot, when that does nothing to help him. He tries to put on a brave face, but Jeff is dealing with a lot—shock, anger, PTSD—and he lashes out at those who love him at times when it becomes all too much to handle. I also liked how the film approached fame. Jeff’s family is all for him becoming famous, because they think that will help him with his recovery, but all Jeff really wants is to be left alone. He never saw himself as a hero or a symbol for people to hang their hopes on and that is made abundantly clear in the film. My one complaint about the film, though, is that I wanted a bit more of why Erin kept getting back together with Jeff, even though she felt he was not good at all for her. They seemed like total opposites—she was a driven career woman, while he was decidedly lackadaisical in thinking and planning for his future. So, while Erin plays a large role in the film, this was the one aspect of their relationship where I would have liked more exploration.
The entire cast is great here. Gyllenhaal gives one of his best performances, solidifying himself as one of Hollywood’s most talented working actors today—of course, he already did that with Nightcrawler, but this film is a little less…uh…messed up. He really captures all of Bauman’s facets and becomes him. Maslany also gives a fantastic performance as a woman trying to hold it all together while she works on helping Jeff heal. Richardson is also great as Patty. It’s a really nice performance that works well, because I couldn’t stand Jeff’s mother, so mission accomplished. Clancy Brown doesn’t get a very showy role as Jeff’s father, but he brings a quiet grief with him that shows through a subtle and nuanced performance. Also, this is a film about Boston, so Lenny Clarke is required to show up and he does great as Jeff’s Uncle Bob. Also, Carlos Sanz gives a nice, subdued performance as Carlos, the man who came to Jeff’s aid at the Marathon. But the film really belongs to Gyllenhaal, Maslany, and Richardson as the two woman battle over what’s best for Jeff.
Overall, I really liked Stronger a lot. Gyllenhaal is amazing here and I loved how the film didn’t shy away from grittier side of recovery from an injury like this as well as the emotional damage. It’s definitely a must-see from me.