Stronger Review

By Rich Cline

 

Based on a true story about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, this looks like one of those movies that will be unbearably inspirational and patriotic. But thanks to director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express), this is a gritty, honest drama that never dips into sentimentality. It’s also a strikingly involving story about a young man who is forced to confront things about himself far beyond his injuries. And that makes it genuinely inspirational.

Stronger Movie Still

The man at the centre is Jeff Bauman (Jake Gylenhaal), a happy-go-lucky lad who is cheering his on-again/off-again girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany) at the marathon’s finish line. Jeff loses both legs in the explosion, returning home to live with his boozy mother (Miranda Richardson) as he tries to put his life back together. But he feels uneasy that the entire city is celebrating him as a hero. So while his working-class family enjoys the celebrity, Jeff goes quiet. Erin tries to get him to take a more proactive approach to his physiotherapy and get on with his life, but Jeff instead slips back into his old habit of drinking too much with his buddies (Richard Jane Jr. and Nate Richman). And this leaves him without much desire to work toward a full recovery.

Against expectations, the filmmakers refuse to sensationalise either the bombing or Jeff’s injuries, instead taking a matter-of-fact approach that feels edgy and authentic. Gyllenhaal plays Jeff as a likeable slacker who knows he’s a loser, so can’t cope with his status as a symbol of hope. This gives his internal journey some real resonance, and Gyllenhaal gives Jeff a remarkable intensity that’s sympathetic even when he’s being a jerk. Maslany is also skilfully understated in her pivotal role, while Richardson is the standout as an uneducated woman who makes some very bad decisions but is fiercely protective of her son.

Most important is the fact that the bombing itself is almost tangential to Jeff’s powerful personal journey. Instead of playing up the momentous event (see Mark Wahlberg’s thriller Patriot’s Day for that), John Pollono’s script remains resolutely internalised, offering a provocative and moving account of Jeff’s struggle to accept his future. It’s a remarkable depiction of the impact of trauma, family tensions and the intrusiveness of a media-obsessed public. And by remaining so tightly within Jeff’s point of view, the film can’t help but catch the audience emotionally. Because when we look at the story this way, it’s almost too easy to identify with everything Jeff goes through.