One might expect to see the themes covered in David Gordon Green’s latest film in a watered down made-for-tv movie. But when the final credits roll on Green’s Stronger, you start to realize that feeling never set in while watching it. The director of comedic hits like Pineapple Express, Green’s prior foray into dramatic filmmaking was the less than satisfying Our Brand is Crisis. In Stronger, Green, and his lead actor Jake Gyllenhaal, give us a look at the darker aspects of its fascinating source material.
What Stronger has working against at face value is it hits every possible dramatic note with its story. It has a lovable underdog, a debilitating injury and the backdrop is a recent American tragedy. Above all, on the surface, it is a comeback story. Yet with strong directing, a captivating central performance and a wonderful script, Stronger transcends the cliches you might have expected from this story.
The film follows the true story of Jeff Bauman, a Costco chicken roaster who’s relationship with his girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany) is something he strives to mend throughout the film. Bauman decides to attend the Boston Marathon which Erin is running. Bauman was at the finish line when the bombs exploded. As a result, Bauman has both legs amputated from above the knee. To begin with, Bauman has high spirits. He tells everyone he is going to walk again and even powers through a relationship with his overbearing mother played by Miranda Richardson.
One of the most admirable aspects of the film is Green’s willingness, and the script, to go to the darker places. Bauman’s selfishness isn’t lost on the audience. As the film goes on, Bauman is about ready to give up hope. Yet, very few can relate to the situation he finds himself. After all, though he’s missing his legs, Bauman is a human being above all else. Green’s attention to detail during the films grittier sequences in part is what helps the film become more than the Hallmark Channel movie of the week.
Maslany is also terrific as Erin, the shy, but stern girlfriend. Maslany commands the screen with an equally as emotional turn. Erin and Jeff both have emotionally charged arcs as the movie progresses. When Jeff is frustrated with her, you get it. The opposite is true as well. Without having an overwhelming amount of chemistry, their relationship works on a level that we buy the struggles they have as a couple. Their relationship is awkward to some extent, but that is really because they are two different minded people. Green doesn’t have to show us a half hour of why Jeff and Erin are the way they are. Maslany and Gyllenhaal give us two riveting performances. It’s a relationship story that doesn’t pull on your heartstings to extract more melodrama from an already dramatic situation.
Even as Stronger dives deeper and gets into the showier aspects of Gyllenhaal’s performance, Green subverts cliches. We see the struggle, Green shows us, he doesn’t tell. He lets Gyllenhaal work without the exposition similar films would inject. Gyllenhaal gives a physical performance but a nuanced one. Jeff is a humble guy. With that, he struggles to grasp the aspect of himself being hero. In Bauman’s eyes, he was just guy who experienced the worst day of his life. It’s Jeff’s questioning of his perceived heroism that makes Stronger stand out from the pack on the emotional level it looks strike with the viewer.
Jeff’s “everyman” personality does make his story that much more inspirational. Green and screenwriter John Pollono know this. But Stronger isn’t exploitative of Bauman’s incredible story. The movie shines brightest when we realize, Jeff is a normal guy, who isn’t quite sure how to handle things following the worst day of his life. He shuns the spotlight, drinks with his friends all just to feel normal. It’s what makes the story relatable. It’s a rare film that for once when discussing a movie, you talk less about some of the technical and visual aspects, and focus more on the man and his story. Stronger is one of the years best films, and David Gordon Green has crafted an inspiring, deeply human story.
Have you seen Stronger? Comment below and let us know what you thought about the film!
Rated: R (for for language throughout, some graphic injury images, and brief sexuality/nudity)
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson, Richard Lane Jr., Nate Richman, Clancy Brown
Directed by: David Gordon Green