REVIEW: ‘Stronger’ ★★★★

By Felix Albuerne Jr., Film Buff
Last Updated: Thursday, September 21, 2017, 3:24 PM EDT

Powered by yet another transformative performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, “Stronger” is an intense and deeply personal journey into the psyche of Jeff Bauman, the Boston Marathon Bombing survivor who came to embody the spirit of “Boston Strong” in the days and months following the tragedy.

Based on Bauman’s memoir about his experiences, the film benefits from its narrow narrative scope and stellar performances from its ensemble cast. It presents emotional struggle in the wake of devastating trauma and loss in a raw and honest manner, one that Gyllenhaal and company keep relatable and engaging.

What’s it about?

“Stronger” starts by showing audiences who Jeff Bauman was before April 15, 2013: a good-hearted, likeable 27-year-old working-class Bostonian, working at Costco and living with his mom, Patty (Miranda Richardson).

Part of Jeff’s charm, however, is that he’s a bit of an arrested development case. His family and friends don’t mind, but for Erin (Tatiana Maslany), Jeff’s on-again, off-again girlfriend, it’s a problem she sometimes feels she can do without.

All that changes the day of the marathon. Erin was a participant, with the finish line in sight blocks away when the first bomb, then the second went off. Jeff was at the finish line, holding a sign, hoping to win Erin back one more time.

What follows is an emotional roller-coaster as the film recounts Jeff’s initial moments coming to terms with the loss of his legs, his sudden celebrity status as a survivor and someone who helped identify one of the bombers, and the whole ordeal’s effect on everyone around him.

To the outside world and especially to the city of Boston, Jeff Bauman simply was “Boston Strong.” But in his own traumatized mind, Jeff was anything but a hero.

That dissonance only adds to the emotional mountain he faces as he works to regain some semblance of a normal life.

Gyllenhaal, cast shine

At the heart of “Stronger” is Gyllenhaal’s powerful turn as Bauman. As he so often does, Gyllenhaal the actor disappears into his take on Bauman, the regular Joe who’s woefully ill-equipped at first to deal in a proactive way with his tragic circumstances.

It should be noted that the camerawork, special effects and production design used to depict Bauman without his legs throughout the film is nothing short of remarkable. Just how convincing all that movie magic is to delivering key scenes throughout the film, when paired with Gyllehaal’s committed effort, cannot be overstated.

Matching Gyllenhaal step-for-step is Tatiana Maslany. Fans of TV’s “Orphan Black” won’t be surprised in the least at how well Maslany delivers the strong-willed, patient, empathic Erin, but those new to seeing her on screen will no doubt come away as fans of her memorable work.

Rounding out the trio of tremendous performances in “Stronger” is that of Miranda Richardson as Patty, Jeff’s fiercely proud but rough-around-the-edges mom. Richardson might be the last actress anyone familiar with her filmography would expect to play a South Boston matriarch who drinks too much, smokes too much and swears like a sailor, but that simply adds to how incredible her work here really is. Only the most discerning Bostonian might find flaw with her effort here, including the accent.

Worth Seeing?

In a year where the list of bona fide film awards contenders is (so far) somewhat thin, “Stronger” should be in the conversation for a number of accolades when the time comes. But that’s not why you should take the time to see the film, not by a longshot.

“Stronger” matters as a film and it’s worth your time because it’s an uplifting story of human courage in the face of the worst kind of adversity, the kind of courage of which we’re all capable. Yes, the obstacles that the real-life Bauman overcame to walk again and to build a new life were extraordinary. But safe to say Bauman would be the first to tell us that we all have that potential within us, to rise above our circumstances, to be stronger than whatever comes our way.

Perhaps the film’s most important message is a reminder of that potential for strength and resilience, that “Boston Strong” isn’t just limited to Jeff Bauman or Bostonians.

“Stronger” articulates that message with artful power and emotion, and these days you can’t have too many of those types of messages in our mass media, especially when they’re done well.

Stronger

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, and Miranda Richardson. Directed by David Gordon Green.
Running time: 116 minutes
Rated R for language throughout, some graphic injury images, and brief sexuality/nudity.