Stronger (2017)

“They’re trying to make a hero out of me.”

Not all superhero movies require capes and masks and incalculable powers. As evidenced in the remarkably intimate film Stronger, sometimes they can belong to this realm, this world full of imperfect and damaged individuals. On occasion, crisis of any kind can develop a viral sense of strength that fights back and adapts against pain, loss, and even apathy. It doesn’t seem far-fetched to say that these natural reactions are common occurrences or that they tend to go overlooked because they’re so ingrained in the hearts of the many. Repetition tends to make us forget what’s right in front of us. Stronger takes this sort of story to the big screen and embraces its profound nature as well as its mundanity, building itself up by reinforcing the very greatest power of them all…the spirit of the soul.

What I loved about this true story biopic is that it doesn’t glorify its characters by negating their flaws. When we first meet Boston man Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), he’s working at Costco and has just screwed up his one job – make sure to not burn the chickens roasting away. He’s a likable guy though, and talks his way out of cleaning up the burnt ends so he can go cheer on the Red Sox with his boys at the traditional waterhole. They’ve lost three straight because he hasn’t been hunkered down in his seat drinking many beers, and it’s voiced with such conviction that we almost believe this self-proclamation as a lucky charm. There he sees Erin (Tatiana Maslany), clearly the apple of his eye, as she tries to dodge his attention. Too late…she’s been spotted. They’re one of those on-again off-again couples who despise the other’s flaws but fall in love with their best traits like clockwork. She’s a sucker for Jeff’s charm and detests his lack of commitment. Jeff promises to cheer her on at the marathon the next day. Erin scoffs, peeling away knowing that this man doesn’t show up for anything. But there he is, at the finish line, just as the bombs erupt.

Unlike Peter Berg’s confounding, jingoistic crime thriller Patriot’s Day released last year, Stronger wisely focuses on the repercussions of Jeff’s circumstance instead of the terrorist’s planned attack. Intelligent audiences know about the bombing and don’t need a cursory reminder; it’s more interesting to experience dire fate with these lovable characters than it is to investigate the inevitable actions taken by those fueled with hate. Jeff becomes a reluctant bat signal for the #BostonStrong movement, a man who lost his legs and, oddly enough, gained a great deal of responsibility for his family and city and country. Not even Atlas could shoulder such a weight. Yet, as in most superhero flicks, Jeff has a loving/patient/kind sidekick in Erin. Worse and less honest films would have scenes showing Erin running away from the drama because she’s a runner. Stronger is smarter than that though, and because of Jeff’s physically (and at times inebriated) dependent condition, their confrontations are forced while retaining integrity and the organic flower blossom that is argument. This is one of those rare pictures that cinematically depicts everyday life the way that it’s actually experienced: painfully, boorishly, and full of recognizable details.

Every now and then a compelling film is magically conjured from a so-so script. Not here though, as I’d say that what’s on the page is likely one of Stronger’s greatest strengths, hardly ever relying on exposition, fleshing out even the most minor characters, and discussing this little subset of Massachusetts with such specificity that you feel like a cautiously welcomed guest. So is the Boston way, I can only guess. Some of the biggest moments in the picture feel too small (a flag-waving entrance at a Bruins game and the grand finale of a perfect first pitch at a Sox game) and some of the minutiae is sold for relief instead of relevancy (a terrible drunk driving sequence nearly derails the picture’s tone). But then the film circles round and round again, reliving the pain and allowing the hurt and the hilarity to resonate. Stronger didn’t move me to tears like I expected, but it made me laugh out loud on numerous occasions. That’s a more difficult task.

In the 2004 film Rayone scene in particular still sticks out to me more than a decade later. While out to eat, a blind Ray Charles says that he can hear the flutter of a distant hummingbird over the chaotic clinging of dishes and conversation. His blindness has amplified his other senses. In a way, Stronger is the same sort of film, its star less embracing of fame but also physically adapting to situations and observing the little things able-bodied individuals would otherwise miss. When Erin – played with poise by the stunning Maslany – throws out Jeff’s socks, the permanence of the situation brings weight. When the eager Jeff – Gyllenhaal performing another Oscar worthy role – can’t chase after his gal, and instead resorts to crawling, his fall from grace feels literal. And when David Gordon Green – a director who correctly capitalizes on a “more is less” approach” – shoots their most personal scene with an unwavering strict focus, we can tell that this is the way it was actually lived. Green and Maslany and Gyllenhaal all do superb work, as do the rest of the cast and crew, and Stronger says more with its courageous actions than it ever could with words.

“You don’t owe me anything.”

Rating: 4 out of 5

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