Stronger

Stronger-rev Stronger  (2017)    Lionsgate/Drama    RT: 116 minutes    Rated R (language throughout, some graphic injury images, brief sexuality, nudity)    Director: David Gordon Green    Screenplay: John Pollono    Music: Michael Brook    Cinematography: Sean Bobbitt    Release date: September 22, 2017 (US)    Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson, Clancy Brown, Richard Lane Jr., Nate Richman, Lenny Clarke, Patricia O’Neil, Kate Fitzgerald, Danny McCarthy, Frankie Shaw, Carlos Sanz, Michelle Forziati.

Rating:fullstar1fullstar1fullstar1star-empty1     

 Last year’s outstanding Patriots Day focused on the intense manhunt for the two terrorists responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. In Stronger, the manhunt takes a back seat to a more personal story, one of survival and heroism. Jeff Bauman, one of the many injured when the bombs went off, lost both legs and had to learn to walk again. In the process, he became a living symbol for “Boston Strong”, the slogan created to express the city’s unity after the bombings. Just one thing, he didn’t want to symbolize anything.

 You’d think from the brief description I provided that Stronger is yet another hero-worship movie about somebody displaying courage in the face of tragedy. You wouldn’t be entirely wrong but you’d be only half-right. Sure, Jeff Bauman is very courageous. He was a Ground Zero that morning, waiting for his on-again/off-again girlfriend Erin to cross the finish line. Not only did he survive the terrorist attack, he was even able to provide a description of one of the bombers to the FBI. No question about it, he’s a hero. A lot of movies would leave it at that but Stronger doesn’t. It takes Jeff’s story to another level by showing him try to cope with personal issues while the public makes a big fuss over him.

 StrongerAt the time of the bombing, Jeff (Gyllenhaal, Nocturnal Animals) and Erin (Maslany, Orphan Black) were in OFF mode as a couple. He just showed up to cheer her on. The problem is that he showed up. We’re talking about a guy who’s notoriously unreliable. He’s late for everything. He leaves work early so he can go to the neighborhood bar to watch the Sox. If he’s not in his favorite seat, they will lose. The one time he shows up for something (on time, no less) and this is what happens. Jeff comes home after several weeks in the hospital to begin his long road to recovery. It’s not enough that he has to learn to adjust to life with a disability. It’s also not enough that he has to learn to walk on prosthetic legs. He has the additional problem of having to do everything in the public eye. He’s asked to do interviews and personal appearances at sporting events. People walk up and talk to him. He’s not comfortable with all the fame and attention; he often lashes out at Erin who moves in with Jeff and his alcoholic mother Patty (Richardson, Sleepy Hollow) to help take care of him. Also, he and Erin are giving the relationship thing another try.

 ‘Tis the season for Oscar movies and I think Stronger has a good shot at being nominated for its two lead performances. From the beginning, Gyllenhaal was never your typical young actor. He didn’t take the usual route to stardom by starring in tired PG-13 horror flicks or gooey teen romances. His early credits include Donnie Darko, Bubble Boy, The Good Girl and Moonlight Mile. He makes bold choices, like 2015’s boxing/redemption drama Southpaw, and usually succeeds. He’s great in Stronger. Not only does he affect a convincing Boston accent, he also has Jeff’s physical mannerisms down. You really believe he has no legs (although to be fair, CGI helps with that a little). He even shows humor when he refers to himself as Lt. Dan (as in Gary Sinise’s character from Forrest Gump) when he first wakes up after his legs are amputated. Equally good is Maslany as the supportive, tough-minded girlfriend who’s willing to take only so much crap before she fights back. She loves Jeff but damned if she’ll be his whipping boy. She’s also not afraid of his mother, laying down the law when Mom gets too overbearing (as she often does). Speaking of Richardson, she’s also quite good in Stronger even if her Boston accent tends to be thick and exaggerated.

 Stronger is good drama. I like how it takes what could have been another tale of courage and heroism in an unexpected direction. Here’s a guy whose life changed in the blink of an eye. Before, he was just the guy who works at the deli counter at Costco and one of many loud customers in the neighborhood bar. BOOM! Instant celebrity! Most movies never touch on the adverse psychological effects of instant celebrityism. It’s worse for Jeff because of where he lives. It’s Boston, he’s a blue collar guy, he’s expected to be tough. It’s a matter of pride for him not to tell his family about his feelings and how messed up he really is inside. Speaking of his family, these people yell A LOT! I’m told yelling is a Boston thing but it still gets to be too much after a while.

 I also like how director David Gordon Green (Snow Angels) keeps the focus on Jeff without ignoring the hunt for the bombers. The family watches news reports in the waiting room. They burst into applause and loud cheering when they hear the first bomber has been killed by police. Green handles the material sensitively. It’s hard to believe he’s the same guy that gave us the pot comedy Pineapple Express. He imbues Stronger with a strong sense of Boston realism. It’s a good movie, a solid three-star film.

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