I have a special relationship with the Boston marathon which I ran in 2016 – and in particular the Boston marathon bombing, where I have seen first-hand how the city has used it as an opportunity to unify itself through the motto of Boston Strong. So, I was excited to watch the new movie, Stronger, that focuses on that exact spirit of resolve and growing stronger through trying times. This film marks the second one around the Boston marathon bombings that has been released. Where the first one, Peter Berg’s Patriots Day was an action thriller focused more on the events leading up to and the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombings, this movie is pure drama choosing to narrow in on the story of one couple and how they dealt with the trying events of the the catastrophe.
It remains powerful and emotionally heart-wrenching throughout. The movie focuses on the true life story of Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) who in supporting his on/off girlfriend Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany) at the 2013 Boston marathon ends up losing both his legs as a result of the bombings. Meanwhile, Jeff’s family (Miranda Richardson, Clancy Brown, Frankie Shaw and Pattie O’Neal), while trying to be supportive, are each working through issues of their own and more interested in making a hero out of their son than trying to understand the emotional scars and hardship the events have had on him. As a result, Jeff ends up finding his only real support from Erin. This brings them closer together as they both deal with the emotional turmoil of their resuling lives.
Strong is a film about overcoming adversity, but unlike your typical Disney film which might paint this journey as an upbeat and triumphant one, this is not afraid to portray its characters in a more honest manner. In fact, there is almost nothing inspiring about Jeff’s struggles in this movie. As you explore his deeply troubled past and character you end up rooting as much against him as you do for him. Just as he seemingly takes one metaphorical step forward, he then falls back again and his life unravels further. He is a flawed person and the movie is more about him needing to rise up above himself than it is about him overcoming the loss of his legs or the tragic events of the bombing. What the film does an excellent job in is making you realize is that this is not some fictional sports drama, but a story about real people and few films draw you into this reality as well as this film does. Even the love story behind Jeff and Erin’s relationship feels real and is not filled with deep romantic gestures, but more about two people that really have to work hard to get along.
One of the effects that director David Gordon Green has excellently used here – which enhances this incredible personal connection – is the narrow focus of the film’s many shots. When the movie could be focusing on the surrounding events or the multiple characters involved, it instead focuses on the expressions of its two main leads, often even blurring out the background so that you experience their emotions firsthand. The film also spends a fair amount of time showing Jeff’s difficulty at doing some of the simplest things, like going to the toilet, which brings out the character’s loneliness in how he is coping with these newfound difficulties in his life. It’s an approach like this obviously requires a lot from its cast and Gyllenhaal and Maslany both deliver exceptionally in this film. Gyllenhaal is easily able to draw you into the thoughts of his character without needing to say a word and has arguably produced one of the best performances of his career.
And for Maslany, while she perhaps doesn’t have the same effect through her body and facial expressions, tackles the greater amount of narrative in how she has to deal with the guilt of knowing his appearance at the events of the bombing is a result of her, opposition from his family who doesn’t care much for her and having to fend off Jeff’s own demons while finding meaning in her own life is an incredibly layered performance.
Another aspect which adds to its power is how it actually tries to remove itself from the bombing as much as possible. While it does still endeavour to show you some of the events of the bombing, it doesn’t allow these moments to linger or remain an integral part of the narrative, which is remarkable considering how the story is so strongly hinged on them. This approach from writer John Pollono at first feels a little disconcerting as the film seemingly skips over important events and is not afraid to take small steps in time, but once you realize the film is not trying to be another Boston marathon bombing movie, you appreciate its approach. The script is not perfect, there are aspects of the dialogue and the relationship between Jeff and Erin that can also come across as a little tedious, but these small inconveniences never detracted from a film that otherwise had me engrossed in the character’s personal lives.
Stonger’s weakest moments arguably come towards the end when it tries to push a little patriotism down your throat. These last moments represent a tonal shift and while not significant, seem a little out of place.
Stronger is one of those excellent character-driven films that demands to be see. It may not have much action or suspense, but you remain gripped by the turmoil and lives of its characters nonetheless. It’s one of those films that I wouldn’t be surprised to see up for Oscar contention during the award season next year. Do yourself a favour though and try not to wait that long to watch this exceptional movie.
Last Updated: September 28, 2017