Stronger review: David Gordon Green directs Jake Gyllenhaal in this warm, authentic and beautifully-acted true story.
Stronger review by Orestes Adam.
The ‘based-on-a-true-story’ genre is one that has been tried and tested several times, having become so overridden by Hollywood conventions and clichés that it often inspires cringe rather than the hope its real-life stories emulate. Enter Stronger, David Gordon Green’s biopic of Jeff Bauman, a man who lost his legs as a result of the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013, which subverts the biopic formula through its dedication to the human aspect of the event and his struggle.
Stronger opens with a brief portrait of Bauman’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) life prior to the incident. He is a Bostonian slacker, working at Costco (and not doing a very good job of it either) and living with his mother. His high moments in life include watching the Red Sox game in his lucky seat with his lucky beer with his likeminded group of family and friends. Only when he sees his ex-girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany) walk into his favorite bar do we see some of his more endearing sides as he promises to support her at the finish line of the upcoming marathon. Tragedy strikes at the marathon and the rest of the film follows Jeff and his family’s struggle to adapt to his new handicap and the fame that’s been thrust upon him.
In spite of its premise, Stronger is not a particularly dark film. It is riddled with comedic beats that are provided primarily by its supporting cast. Humor arises from the family’s carefreeness and immaturity, but mostly from their complete inability to deal with the immense gravity of the situation at hand. In fact, so many dark jokes are made at the expense of Jeff’s amputated legs that the film makes you feel bad for laughing; but in providing that comedy it makes the Bauman’s feel like a real family, as in spite of the tragedy that has befallen Jeff they remain humorous, reckless, carefree, and above all, human. With such a lovable circle of family and friends, the film’s heaviest moments occur when Jeff’s alone, struggling to complete everyday tasks such as using the bathroom or taking a shower on his own.
Jake Gyllenhaal offers a phenomenal performance as Bauman and while even after his injury he maintains his likeability, the audience never forgets the pain he goes through onscreen. Jeff actually accepts his disability rather quickly, joking about it the moment he wakes up in the hospital. However, it’s not so much his disability that bothers him, but rather the fact that everyone, his family, and friends included, feels the need to enforce upon him their opinion of what the bombing (and his survival) means. Even in the obligatory scene of his tearful breakdown, Gyllenhaal makes sure to convey not only his anger but also the feelings behind it. Under every raging scream, Gyllenhaal’s voice will crack and revert to one of fear and insecurity that comes not just from the repercussions of the attack but also from his utter lack of ambition in life. Tatiana Maslany offers an equally commendable portrayal of Erin who is brilliantly characterized against the archetype of the saintly woman that cleans up after the disabled protagonist regardless of how he treats her; clearly drawing the lines between easing Jeff’s genuine pain and telling him when he’s wrong for feeling sorry for himself.
With such visceral performances director, David Gordon Green (who casual filmgoers may know from Pineapple Express) certainly provides the cinematic flair to match. An emphasis is placed on certain trivial aspects of Jeff’s recovery such as the pulling out his breathing tubes, granting the film a great sense of authenticity. His most valuable tool, however, is the shallow focus, which he uses to both represent these characters’ narrow worldview but also their refusal to deal with their most immediate problems. Even the bomber who Jeff briefly catches a glimpse of is barely discernible through Green’s lens, making him all the more frightening for truly tapping into society’s fear of the unknown.
What Stronger makes clear from the very start is that Jeff Bauman is not the hero the media paints him to be. Rather, he is a survivor, reluctant to become a symbol that the public can adore due to his own lack of admiration for himself. What elevates Stronger higher than most true story biopics is its chronicling of this very journey, from survivor to hero, and while the film’s ending can be considered formulaic it is ultimately one that is fully earned.
Stronger review by Orestes Adam, December 2017.
Stronger is released in UK cinemas on Friday 8th December 2017.