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In the aftermath of great tragedies, victims and heroes are singled out as symbols for public consumption, whether the chosen ones want this role or not. Perhaps the most striking thing about David Gordon Green’s Stronger is how it refuses to turn its subject into a hero or even a small-time symbol of courage, as one might legitimately expect of a survivor story, even while the world is clamoring to put him on a pedestal.
Jake Gyllenhaal portrays Jeff Bauman, the young man who became a national rallying point of resistance to terrorism after losing his legs in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. The film is a simple, straightforward recreation of how he rebuilt his life after the trauma, learned to walk on prosthetic legs and matured enough to accept responsibility for a wife and child. Based on the memoir by Bauman and Brett Witter, it devotes very little time to the bombing itself, but gives a great deal of space to the ordeal of learning to accept loss and find meaning in life.
It marks yet another new hairpin turn in the career of the eclectic Green, who has directed political farces (Our Brand Is Crisis), character studies (Manglehorn) and loopy adult comedies (Pineapple Express). As simple and unpretentious as the hero, the film can probably connect with large audiences much better than with the more sophisticated art house set.
As Bauman, Gyllenhaal is a likable clown: A wide-eyed, working class Bostonian, he’s an ordinary guy who screws up at work and then begs to be forgiven so he can catch the Red Sox game with his buddies. He lives with his demanding, alcoholic mother (Miranda Richardson), whom he finds in the bar watching the game with her equally drunk girlfriends. Jeff banters a bit with her as she falls off her stool. But his attention is fastened on his ex, Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany), whom he recently broke up with for the third time.
Erin is a runner prepping for the marathon and to win back her affection, he promises he will be waiting for her to cross the finish line. As she later points out to him, he never shows up when he’s supposed to — except this time, he does.
As he watches the runners approach the finish line, he’s jostled by a young man in dark glasses, whom he will later describe to the FBI as one of terrorists, Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Meanwhile, almost a mile away, Erin stops running at the sound of the second bomb exploding and stares in confusion at clouds of smoke rising in the air. All this happens in the blink of an eye and is filmed in a deliberately unspectacular fashion, as though it was simply background information to the main story.
That begins when Jeff wakes up in the hospital. His expression, when he learns that the doctors have amputated his legs below the knee, is wrenching. But instead of building to a predictable emotional climax, the camera takes note of what is happening in the visitors’ lounge: His estranged father is shouting at his well-meaning boss who has brought over insurance papers, while his mother raves at the motley assembly of friends and relatives.
This dysfunctional family makes his return home from the hospital even more challenging. All he wants to do is take a shower with Erin’s help, but the small apartment is swarming with people. He has become an unwilling symbol of resistance to terrorism and has been crowned with the slogan “Boston Strong.” Photographers and cameramen follow him like a star, which tires him out. But his mom is high on her son’s amazing success, and can’t get enough of the vicarious limelight.
Green’s camera keeps very, very close to the characters, especially in intimate moments: when Jeff throws up in pain after the doctors remove his bandages for the first time, when he and Erin make love on his bed, when he struggles to maneuver around a small bathroom and falls painfully on his face.
Reconstructing his relationship with Erin proves to be the greatest challenge of all. Maslany, who is well-known for her role on the TV series Orphan Black, is a fine actress who plays cool and mature. But she’s capable of slipping into colorful four-letter Boston vernacular when the situation gets hot.
Gyllenhaal draws on humor more than drama in his portrait of Bauman (scenes on a swing and driving a car are a hoot). However, he throws the emotional floodgates open in two notable scenes. The first is his furious reaction of spilled bile when Erin informs him she’s pregnant, followed by the excruciating sight of him literally crawling after her. The other is his moving encounter with Carlos Arredondo, known as the man in the cowboy hat, which he was wearing when he rushed to help Jeff as he lay on the ground bleeding after the blasts. This meeting, along with the encouragement he receives from well-wishers after he throws the ceremonial first pitch at a big Red Sox game, are turning points that motivate him to get through the pain of rehab and start walking again.
Gyllenhaal, who co-produced the film with his company Nine Stories Productions, brings an Everyman quality to Jeff. Emotionally wounded by his domineering mother and by his own weaknesses, he makes a journey that everyone can identify with. Richardson turns heads in the supporting role of the mother with her closely observed comic mannerisms.
Taking the diametrically opposite approach to lighting that he did in the well-heeled period piece On Chesil Beach, another TIFF debut, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt opts for a natural look without stylization. Stephen Carter’s sets have a messy, lived-in feeling in which the characters seem right at home.
Production companies: Bold Films, Lionsgate, Mandeville Films, Nine Stories Productions
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson, Clancy Brown, Carlos Sanz, Frankie Shaw, Danny McCarthy, Lenny Clarke
Director: David Gordon Green
Screenwriter: John Pollono
Producers: Todd Lieberman, David Hoberman, Michel Litvak, Scott Silver, Jake Gyllenhaal
Executive producers: Gary Michael Walters, Riva Marker, Anthony Mattero, Peter McGuigan, Nicolas Stern, Jeffrey Stott, Alexander Young, Qiuyun Long
Director of photography: Sean Bobbitt
Production designer: Stephen Carter
Editor: Dylan Tichenor
Music: Michael Brook
World sales: Lionsgate
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala)
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