2017, R, 116 min. Directed by David Gordon Green. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson, Lenny Clarke, Clancy Brown, Carlos Sanz, Kate Fitzgerald, Nate Richman.
REVIEWED By Danielle White, Fri., Sept. 29, 2017
Trauma doesn’t exactly define us. But it does shape who we are. And the road to recovery isn’t always a scenic one – it’s often riddled with stops and starts. And so it goes for Jeff Bauman (a thin, ashy-faced Jake Gyllenhaal), the subject of David Gordon Green’s latest film Stronger. Bauman, a somewhat neurotic, totally lovable loser from Chelmsford, Mass., was just trying to get his on-again, off-again girlfriend Erin (Maslany) back for good when he showed up at the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. He lost both legs in the bombing.
The opening of the film, set in a local bar, immediately has a Green feel to it, recalling his All the Real Girls’ spot-on portrayal of the working class. Boston (which, let’s face it, encompasses the whole state) is a city of clans. Bauman, at 27, lives in a cramped apartment with his wine-aholic mother Patty (a flushed, weary-eyed Richardson) who is a reckless yet overbearing presence. And then there’s Uncle Bob (Clarke, who else?), a stand-in for the father (Brown) who presumably exited the scene early on.
Bauman became a reluctant, even unwilling hero once a photo taken of him amidst the carnage made national news. Stronger is based on a book he wrote, and his personality permeates the film. He’s a funny guy, and there are shiny bits of humor that glisten in all the darkness. (When a couple approaches him at a bar to assure him that the terrorists didn’t win, he quips, “Yah, well they at least got on the scoreboard.” Gyllenhaal’s accent is pretty convincing, and I can say that because I grew up in Massachusetts.) Richardson also lends authenticity to her character, a mother adept at playing the victim (even in this situation). There’s a complexity to the family dynamic that couldn’t be more true-to-life.
The strategy, camera-wise, is to get right up in Gyllenhaal’s face – as he’s being wheeled around giving a feeble thumbs-up to invested bystanders or gripped by the agony of having his dressing changed for the first time. At that point, it’s a bit out of focus, like a morphine drip. Bauman questions what it even means to be “Boston Strong,” and by the end of the journey it becomes clear. He summed it up best himself in an interview: “You cry. You laugh. You keep on moving forward.” But Stronger this time.