Stronger tells the story of Jeff Bauman, a spectator injured in the Boston Marathon bombing; he’s the guy from the famous picture, clutching his legs as a guy in a cowboy hat whisks him away toward help. This movie could very easily have become a standard inspirational tale that would have slathered on its moral of hope and healing with a spatula, but it really isn’t that. Don’t mistake me; the movie is ultimately a story of hope and the enduring power of love, but the actors, writer & director make sure that things maintain a rawness and a reality that makes those things feel hard-won and realistic, not cheesy. Jake Gyllenhaal is, as I kind of now expect him to be, brilliant; he leans a bit heavily on his wide-eyed, aw-shucks charm at the beginning of the film, but when it comes time for him to take his journey into darkness, he’s dead on target in every scene as he struggles to maintain a façade of strength while he’s falling apart inside. This is really one of the main points of the film; what do you do once you’ve become an icon of strength? Everyone wants to believe that he’s Boston Strong, but Bauman is the only one who knows just how fragile and broken he really is. Tatiana Maslany is a real revelation as Bauman’s on-again, off-again girlfriend; in contrast to Gyllenhaal’s performance of large emotions, Maslany keeps everything very small and interior and it really works when the two of them bounce off of each other. She brings a real naturalism to a part that’s actually pretty difficult. Miranda Richardson has an even more difficult part to pull off without looking like an idiot: the domineering Boston mom. David Gordon Green keeps the movie intimate, putting you right in Bauman’s head in some really intense sequences of mental and emotional suffering; at its strongest, this movie is absolutely harrowing. There’s a brilliant scene of Bauman meeting the cowboy-hatted man who saved his life at a restaurant and the scene isn’t an emotional reunion or a time for tearful uplight; it’s quiet and awkward, hushed and uncertain – a word for Carlos Sanz who gives a brilliant performance in that scene. The screenplay, by noted playwright John Pollono, refuses to give the audience anything as clichéd as a clear cut moment of change or transition. We are, ultimately, never quite sure what it is that turns Bauman from despair to hope. This doesn’t feel lazy or uncertain; it feels like the movie knows the truth: that it is never just a single moment that brings someone out of darkness into light. The transition from weakness to strength is gradual and this movie understands that as most movies of its type simply don’t. 4 stars.
tl;dr – beautiful performances, an unflinching screenplay and beautiful direction elevate this movie above what it might have been; a movie of inspiration without a moment that feels false. 4 stars.