Given the spate of bad movies I’ve seen lately, I can’t help but wonder if Stronger felt so refreshingly awesome in comparison or if it really is just a great movie. Following the true story of Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) who lost both legs in the Boston marathon bombing, and his recovery with his boisterous family (led by Miranda Richardson), and ex-girlfriend (Tatiana Maslany), Stronger feels decidedly honest. Nothing feels forced or exploitive, in direct contrast to last year’s Boston marathon bombing flick Patriots Day.
Such a cliché, but Gyllenhaal really gives a lived-in performance here. His choices in films continue to impress, especially since he could’ve easily gone the action-hero route and built a solid list of franchises under his belt. Instead, he’s been going for deeper character pieces (Nightcrawler, Nocturnal Animals, Southpaw) where he can showcase his talent. Jake’s Bauman is kind of an asshole, but still has a sense of humor about his situation. He’s real and raw. He’s just trying to get through this bullshit thing that happened to him, and he’s angry and tired and frustrated and bored. His relationship with on-again off-again Erin (Maslany) is messy, sweet, annoying and real. Maslany is great, and gives a nice weight to a character who has her own agency and reality, and doesn’t simply exist as an extension of the main character. Same with Richardson who plays Bauman’s often-drunk, imposing mother.
For the heaviness of the material, there are a lot of laughs in the film, and an easiness in storytelling throughout. It doesn’t feel like it’s checking specific boxes or hammering home the big moments. Bauman’s first steps aren’t even shown on screen. His struggle comes through in the day-to-day regularities, not in the big beats that a lesser film would exploit. There’s an indictment of our bandwagon culture and how people sometimes use a tragedy to latch on to, to be a part of something. The continued response to the “Boston Strong” rally cry – “what does that even mean?” underscores this.
Stronger is a great film, made with delicate care from Director David Gordon Green (George Washington, Snow Angels, and Pineapple Express for some reason). The screenplay is the first from actor John Pollono, who shows a surprising amount of grace and focus. With a solid cast, strong writing, deft direction, Stronger is one of the few bright spots in cinemas in the past few months.
My Grade – A