Cinematic tales of survival, endurance, and tenacity can often run the risk of being overly sentimental or cliche-ridden, but every so often there comes a film that handles those themes with admirable execution; director David Gordon Green’s Stronger is one such film. Anchored by sensitive performances, particularly from leads Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany, this real-life story translates well to the big screen by sidestepping contrived heroism in favor of the everyday kind of strength.
Based on the memoir of the same name, Stronger recounts the story of Jeff Bauman (Gyllenhaal), a raucous and frequently irresponsible Bostonian, who loses both his legs after the 2013 bombings of the famed Boston Marathon. On the path to recovery it becomes obvious that Jeff will have to undergo more then just physical rehabilitation, but a mental one as well. Confronted with the great challenges ahead of him and the need to leave his old life behind, Jeff’s struggles highlight the endurance of the human spirit to move forward.
Jake Gyllenhaal delivers a genuinely emotional performance, both touching and inspiring. As the signs of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) begin to surface for our main character, Gyllenhaal convincingly brings forward the swirl of emotions of a truly battered man. Though it is still early in the race for the Academy Awards and many other contenders will emerge, his is a definite possible nomination. An actual nomination will depend on the competition but it should be noted there are certainly elements of “Oscar bait” in Gyllenhaal’s performance and a nomination would not be a surprise. Like other award winners who have portrayed disabled people, he is not a phony pitiful character but a flawed yet determined protagonist.
The supporting cast is strong in their own right, enhancing Jeff’s story and his ability to overcome. Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany too is fragile as Jeff’s girlfriend, being both vulnerable and strong, while Miranda Richardson delightfully surprises in her role as Jeff’s drunken mother. It is most interesting to see Richardson, a British actress, play a foul-mouthed, “red neck” persona frequently intrusive in her son’s life; she pulls it off well enough and for audiences, without the knowledge of her British roots it will come as a surprise to learn about them.
Though the first half of the film moves rather slowly, it picks up to a winning conclusion. The use of CG imagery to ‘amputate’ Gyllenhaal’s legs remains an impressive illusion (much like Gary Sinise’s character in Forest Gump), while graphic scenes of the aftermath of the explosion are both vivid, yet just vague enough to allow us to assemble our own picture of how horrendous this incident really was. The heroism of everyday people and the struggle to not let evil win is presented in a respectful and emotional manner helping the film move beyond a ‘traditional’ feel-good movie.
As a whole Stronger is not a masterpiece, but its constituent elements are certainly quite commendable. From Jake Gyllenhaal’s sensitive, brave-hearted performance, to the supporting cast, and the well-developed story, “Stronger” is a handsomely made movie that while emotional and inspirational is not fake in any sense. It is not a made for TV sappy affair but a film whose heart is real. And it will definitely have its audiences inspired to learn that the will to live can withstand even the most malevolent times.