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"Look at this, Boston Strong! You see that Jeff, you're a hero!" "I'm a hero for surviving?" During this exchange Jeff (Gyllenhaal), his uncle (Clarke) and his mother (Richardson) are driving home after a six week stay at the hospital. Jeff's eyes are looking on, puzzled, sullen, and even a little embarrassed that people standing on a highway walkway have made a sign welcoming him back. He doesn't think himself a hero at this point he has no idea what to think.
Stronger is the true-life story of Jeff Bauman, an ordinary Boston native who lost his legs in the aftermath of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. While recovering from the trauma of the event, Jeff unwittingly becomes a symbol of hope for a city unnerved; a predicament that puts undue strain on Jeff and his relationships with his family and his on-again-off-again girlfriend Erin (Maslany).
Wrapped around the familiar story-beats of an earnest but incidental feel-good movie is a narrative that most of the time feels like it's anything but. Director David Gordon Green wisely complicates and subverts the expected narrative by looking up at characters and events through Jeff's unique perspective. In one fell swoop Jeff becomes, in his eyes, a trifling good-news segment, a drain on his family and fuel for Erin's guilty conscience. Everyone, including the man who saved his life (Sanz) labels him a hero. But Jeff is walled up by so many conflicting emotions that trying to confront the actual tragedy is almost insurmountable for him.
Thus much of the movie is spent with Jeff adapting to the physical limits of being paraplegic while uncomfortably inhibiting the role of a proud survivor. There's a hard fought lesson by the end. One that makes everything worth a watch but that doesn't make moments of Jeff toiling in the bathroom any less harrowing. In one stressful scene Jeff has what appears to be a panic attack after waving the flag at a Bruins game. Erin stands over him trying desperately to touch and comfort him. He aggressively swats her away.
Stronger's heartbreaking moments do take their toll. And while Jeff's chuckle-headed family of Boston brogued misfits provide levity to offset some of the unpleasantness, the film still packs an emotional wallop that I for one was not expecting; at least not to this penetrating depth and rawness.
Jake Gyllenhaal; always the underrated actor is master of his domain here. He essentially plays two versions of Jeff one a likable man-child, the other a fractured soul slowly crawling back from the darkness. Both work so completely and so honestly that when the film dips into the grab-bag of feel-good clichés Gyllenhaal shakes any doubt that we're looking at the real thing.
When compared to the opportunistic Patriots Day (2016), Stronger has infinitely more to say about the strength of everyday people and how that strength can flourish through love and support. The collective intuition of David Gordon Green, Jake Gyllenhaal and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt breathes real pathos into what just might be the best recovery story put to film. This isn't a movie about a hero; this is a movie about the hero in all of us.
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