“They’re trying to make a hero out of me.”
On April 15, 2013, 27-year-old Jeff Bauman, a lively, independent Costco deli worker, was desperate to mend his relationship with his ex-girlfriend, Erin, who was running in the Boston Marathon. In an effort to impress he created a homemade sign, bypassed the Red Sox game and stood near the finish line to cheer her through the last few strides. But instead of enjoying a moment of excitement Jeff’s life changed forever when two homemade bombs exploded just feet from where he was standing. Jeff lost both of his legs in the blast. His struggles, physical. spiritual, and psychological, sit at the core of David Gordon Green’s inspirational drama Stronger.
Stronger marks the second film in the last 9 months to center around the bombing, but the first to sidestep the cliches and offer up a humane and authentic approach that triggers all the right emotions. Green’s ability to interlace original comedy in the midst of a somber narrative is impressive; yet it is through these subtle details that the film, much like its subject, is able to rise above.
The first David Gordon Green film to be based on true events, Stronger presents both Jeff and Erin in a truly remarkable light as we witness each of them go through their own inner conflicts following the bombing. Only occasionally overlapping, it is ultimately both of their stories that generate an unknown void deep within our gut as we quickly find ourselves lost within the wreckage, elated to know the outcome but struggling as we witness the hardships they each went through along the way.
Gyllenhaal’s embodiment of Bauman is stunning as he offers up a character that experiences a stark transformation in regard to his physical appearance and emotional stability. At one point wishing to die, we find ourselves uncomfortably twisting in our seat as we watch his bandages get changed for the first time. The event should have been quick and easy; however, Green refuses to take the camera away, allowing you to sit and witness the process, seeing the pain and experiencing a dry sense of helplessness.
We watch as Jeff progresses through his rehab, never fully understanding the power of his presence. A quick media sensation, the rally cry of “Boston Strong” rests on his shoulders, a reality that comes full force when he is wheeled onto the ice at a Boston Bruins hockey game to wave a flag bearing the slogan. A rush of nerves has him shaking, though it is Erin that conveys his importance to the people of the city.
Unlike other “inspirational” films, Stronger refuses to be pretty. Jeff is a man of many great things; however, Green also takes the time to highlight his less stellar moments.
Jeff’s celebrated journey of strength, power and determination is often beautified by the media. Stronger opts to keep things real, displaying the daily struggles and mental exhaustion that hits both Jeff and those he loves. It is at these moments, sprinkled throughout the narrative, that gives the film its grit, honesty, and heart - even if you do find yourself overwhelmed by it all when Erin and Jeff’s mother break into a shouting match while loading the car for a physical therapy session.
Tatiana Maslany proves a sturdy support for Gyllenhaal as her Erin fully realizes the toll Jeff’s new found celebrity is having on him, an obvious truth that has alluded Jeff’s mom, played perfectly by Miranda Richardson. Her party to announce Jeff’s upcoming interview with Oprah aside, Jeff’s entire family quickly looses focus, refusing to see the struggle on his face, always there for him, but also blinded to the lonely journey traveled to get there.
Green’s ability to capture authentic characters and their surroundings reminds fans why they fell in love with the filmmaker prior to his breakout success with 2008’s Pineapple Express. Granted it took two stellar lead performances and a truly remarkable story to sow it all together, the director’s gentle and mindful approach crafts something truly significant.
*This review was originally featured as part of our 2017 Toronto International Film Festival coverage