“I’m gonna be okay, right? So you’re gonna be okay.”
It’s easy to mistake Stronger for a different film. After all, there lies no shortage of empty, paint-by-numbers biopics, especially come Oscars season. However, to expect this film to follow in the footsteps of its formulaic, emotionally manipulative predecessors would be a mistake. Instead of fetishizing the tragedy that was the Boston Marathon bombing for the screen, director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express, All the Real Girls) and screenwriter John Pollono instead take a microcosmic approach, laser-focused on what happened to those affected after the event itself. Specifically based on the story of Jeff Bauman, the 27-year old Bostonian who lost his legs in the bombing, Stronger is a deeply intimate and affecting exploration of what it means to be put on a pedestal without having a choice in the matter. Often brutal and difficult to watch in its honesty, Stronger refuses to take the easy way out, effectively earning its triumphs and tears in equal measure.
Jeff, portrayed by the ever-reliable chameleon that is Jake Gyllenhaal, is as ordinary as they get and he knows it. A clumsy, yet charming Costco employee by day and a beer-guzzling Red Sox fanatic at night, his existence is harmless and simple, but it’s at least one of contentment. That is, other than his on-again, off-again relationship with Erin (Tatiana Maslany), who in stark contrast to Jeff, has her shit together. During one of their off-again lulls, they run into each other at the local sports bar as she collects donations before participating in the upcoming marathon. Excitedly, Jeff promises to show up, like he’d failed so miserably to do for her before. He desperately wants her back, and this time, he’s determined not to fuck it up. Like a cruel, merciless trick by fate itself, a bomb goes off at the finish line where he’s waiting with a sign in hand, his legs getting completely blown off on the one afternoon he does finally show up for her.
Instead of exploiting the bombing, the tragic event merely serves as the backdrop for what Jeff’s life comes to be after that fateful day. He’s quickly forced into the limelight, especially after helping the FBI identify the bomber. As he is carted out of the hospital in a wheelchair by his mother, his legs nothing but mere stumps anymore, Jeff is bewildered and overwhelmed by the attention he’s suddenly on the receiving end of. To him, he’s just a guy, and he’s incapable of reconciling the fact that what happened to him resulted into turning him into some sort of sensation, a beacon of hope for complete and total strangers everywhere.
Green and Gyllenhaal themselves are certainly uninterested in glorifying Jeff, pushing the character to lengths that showcase his vulnerability through ugly moments of raw humanity. Gyllenhaal unleashes yet another a fearless and nuanced performance, masterfully disappearing into the role with a self-conscious slouch and a boyish, frustrating immaturity. On the surface, Jeff is playful and always the first to poke fun at his own tragedy, but it’s also a defense mechanism as he uses his deadpan, Bostonian sense of humor to deflect from his trauma and internalizations, as people tend to do. With the weight of his family’s and the world’s hope on his shoulders, his spiraling depression, and issues with alcoholism, he’s back to deliberately letting Erin down, constantly digging himself into a deeper hole because he thinks that’s what he deserves. “Why do you want me?” he screams at Erin. “I’m just a fuck up.”
But Stronger isn’t just about Jeff. Hell, the world itself is far bigger than just him. As the heart and soul of the film, this is Erin’s story too, and Maslany delivers a performance as strong and utterly heartbreaking as her counterpart in Gyllenhaal, portraying the pain of constantly being available and pouring so much of yourself for someone who takes you for granted, for someone who doesn’t always offer the same support in return. “I’m not afraid of you!” she screams back at him in the same scene, embodying the under-appreciated strength of selfless caretakers everywhere. While the relationship itself certainly has its downs, what makes it feel as nuanced and authentic as it does are the equally tender moments between the two, showing that even the best of relationships sometimes push both parties to their worst and most vulnerable.
Stronger is nothing revolutionary, but perhaps that’s precisely the point and what makes it all the more powerful. Tragedies tend to be scrutinized and thus remembered as contained events, but its permanent, traumatic effects on those directly affected are often disregarded and glossed over. With Green’s sensitive touch and stellar performances all around, what emerges with Stronger is an understated, yet visceral and utterly heart-wrenching depiction of the resilience of the human spirit.