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Thursday, September 28, 2017

Review: Stronger (2017)

* * *

Director: David Gordon Green
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson

Grief is hard enough. Having to grieve publicly, and as a symbol for the grief of countless others, must be an especially hellish experience. David Gordon Green's Stronger is an intimate exploration of trauma under a spotlight, telling the story of Jeff Bauman, who lost both legs in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and became a symbol of "Boston Strong." While it contains some of the beats of the "overcoming the odds" subgenre, Stronger largely avoids devolving into a cookie-cutter drama thanks to its keen focus on exploring its characters and the very strong performances of the actors playing them.

Introduced in the days before the bombing, the Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) depicted in Stronger is a nice, but kind of flaky guy, someone who means well but doesn't have any ability to follow through on the promises that he makes. This has driven away his on-again, off-again girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany), whom he hopes to win back by proving that he can be counted on by showing up to cheer her on as she runs in the marathon. When it comes to depicting the bombing Green opts for discretion, showing it from Erin's perspective some distance from the finish line, lingering on the surprise and the confusion of those close enough to see the explosion but not close enough to see the carnage. Much later the film will zero in on Jeff's experience of the bombing, but by that point it has spent so much time examining Jeff's psychological trauma that the images don't feel exploitative or like they've been included for shock value, but simply feel like the missing piece of the puzzle. It's to the film's endless credit that it never uses the bombing as an easy way of eliciting emotion, including it in a way that doesn't let it define the story. It deals with the bombers in a similar fashion, showing one as a blurry figure passing by Jeff in the crowd and acknowledging Jeff's role in helping to identify the suspects without ever letting the bombers take center stage. This isn't a movie about the bombers or what they did or even how they were caught - it's not their story; it's a story about a man dealing with trauma and the family that deals with it alongside him.

To that end, Stronger is a film with a narrow focus and a narrow aesthetic, often filming its characters in close up and tight shots, leaving it impossible to escape the rawness of their emotions. This is true of Erin, who loves Jeff but is frustrated by how unreliable he is (and who, although the film never comes out and says so directly, maybe feels a bit obligated to get back together with him given his circumstances) while also seeming to be the only person in his life who recognizes how much being in spotlight is hurting him and setting his recovery back. It's true of Jeff's mom, Patty (Miranda Richardson), a functioning alcoholic who finds herself displaced as Jeff's caregiver once he gets back together with Erin and becomes increasingly resentful of how marginalized she becomes in his recovery despite being the one who has been there from the beginning. But it's especially true of Jeff, who finds himself in the unenviable position of trying to physically and psychologically recover from the trauma of losing both of his legs while also being called upon to make public appearances where his resilience will be symbolic of the resilience of Boston as a whole. He's asked to perform, essentially, in order to provide catharsis for the rest of the city and it's confusing to him as well as overwhelming.

One of the strengths of Stronger is that it manages to convey all of this without having to put it explicitly into words. Though Jeff does have a short monologue towards the end, Stronger isn't big on talking about feelings and instead trusts that the actors can dramatize the characters' interior lives and make them understood. To that end, the actors get a lot to sink their teeth into, but the film never becomes overwrought. Gyllenhaal has what might easily be described as an "Oscar bait" role, but he doesn't play it with the "showiness" that that term tends to imply. As played by Gyllenhaal, Jeff is just an ordinary guy, which is why being thrust into the spotlight has such a difficult effect on him psychologically. He's not equipped to deal with that kind of pressure, to have people thinking of him as a hero (a designation he doesn't even understand in the circumstances), or to be a "tragedy celebrity," and for most of the film Gyllenhaal plays him in that low-key way (there's one emotionally wrenching scene that departs from this, but it's a scene that both the film and Gyllenhaal absolutely earn), delivering one of his best performances to date in the process.

Sight unseen, Stronger may sound like the kind of film to avoid since films of its type tend to be openly and aggressively manipulative in their quest to pluck the heartstrings, but Stronger doesn't overplay its hand. Tears may be shed while watching it, but it doesn't nakedly pursue them - it's a moving film, but it's moving largely because of its finely drawn character work and its performances. Green unfolds it as a very intimate character study and that strategy works marvelously well, bringing this larger than life event down to a very human scale. Stronger is a strongly told, wonderfully acted film that packs an emotional wallop.

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