What keeps Stronger from turning into a patly sentimental yarn is Jake Gyllenhall’s modulated performance.
Stronger, directed by David Gordon Green. Screening at Kendall Square, AMC and Showcase Cinemas.
By Tim Jackson
David Gordon Green’s Stronger is the story of Boston Marathon bombing victim Jeff Bauman who, like our best sports teams, snatches victory from the jaws of defeat and comes back stronger than ever. The narrative’s focus is on the emotional toll weathered by the protagonist in the wake of that eventful day. Bauman (Jake Gyllenhall) plays a Boston ‘bro’ who loves the Pats, the Sox, and drinking with his ‘buds.’ He works at Costco and is having trouble getting along with his girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany). On April 15, 2013, Bauman leaves work early to watch Erin cross the Marathon finish line. The explosion pulverizes both his legs below the knee. During his recovery, Bauman becomes a very public symbol for Boston resilience, an extraordinary burden for a regular guy from Chelmsford, MA. Gyllenhal has specialized in giving powerful performances in physically challenging roles; he was brutalized as a boxer for Southpaw and tormented as an American soldier in Iraq in Jarhead. With the help of seamless computer effects, he makes Bauman’s physical struggle convincing.
Nothing in Bauman’s new life is easy: not making love to his girlfriend, loading himself into a car, or keeping his balance on his artificial legs. Psychologically, Bauman is surprisingly resilient following the accident, but his fortitude gradually slips away. Paraded out as a poster boy for “Boston Strong” to a cheering mob at a Celtics game, he flashes back to the bombing and, with Erin’s help, barely overcomes a panic attack. He is recognized and approached by strangers and in constant demand for interviews (“frickin’ Oprah called,” announces his mother). Bauman takes to numbing himself with beer and booze.
The story of an average guy overcoming suffering and self-pity is predictable fare. What keeps Stronger from turning into a patly sentimental yarn is Gyllenhall’s modulated performance. He underplays Bauman’s emotional turmoil with charm and humor. He hides the man’s physical challenges behind resentment. Yet there is a constant undercurrent of vulnerability; you feel he could fall apart in an instant. What’s more, the chemistry between Gyllenhall and Maslany softens scenes that could become alarmingly melodramatic. The actress plays her role as loyal helpmate with a calm strength. She is his anchor, which makes Stronger into a moving love story. While somewhat caricatured, Bauman’s family suggests the messy comradery of a close-knit, white, working-class Boston family. His chain-smoking mother and contentious father (Miranda Richardson and Clancy Brown), rowdy relatives (local comedian Lenny Clark plays Uncle Bob), and hard-drinking buddies are prickly supporters. Those closest to him, who care deeply about his welfare, turn out to be obstacles in his road to recovery.
In films as diverse as Pineapple Express, Joe, Prince Avalanche, and Snow Angels, director David Gordon Green has specialized in close-up portraits of everyman heroes challenged by demanding circumstances. He is a perfect choice for bringing this tale of triumph over adversity to the screen. Actor/writer John Pollono’s screenplay is based on Bauman’s memoir. There are interludes of cliché, such as the scene in which adoring fans gather around Bauman at Fenway Park, inspired by his comeback and/or his resurrection through the love of a good woman (Real Life Note: Bauman and Erin Hurley were divorced earlier this year.) There is some mythmaking going on here — but this is Bauman’s story and he (along with the movie) is sticking to it.
In an interview, Bauman was asked if Gyllenhall would have been his first choice for the role. He said he’d have considered Denzel Washington. He’s got a wicked good sense of humor, too.
Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story, and the short film The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.