Movie review: Stronger explores the realities of healing

In Stronger, Jake Gyllenhaal portrays the real-life reluctant hero Jeff Bauman, who lost his legs in the Boston marathon bombing. Photo courtesy New Line Cinema In Stronger, Jake Gyllenhaal portrays the real-life reluctant hero Jeff Bauman, who lost his legs in the Boston marathon bombing. Photo courtesy New Line Cinema

It’s unfortunate that Stronger is being seen by some as “the other Boston Marathon bombing movie” after the release of Patriots Day earlier this year. The comparison shouldn’t even be made, but just in case there are people who might not see Stronger due to the association, let’s debunk and move on.

The two could not be more dissimilar; Patriots Day is an intentionally dishonest exercise in authority worship that throws the stories of actual people and victims by the wayside (its lead character, Tommy Saunders, is a composite who happens to be instrumental in capturing the Tsarnaev brothers). Stronger is a thoughtful, fact-based exploration of trauma and recovery, and the difficulty of moving on when everyone around you defines you by a single event that you only want to forget.

R, 119 minutes
Regal Stonefield 14 & IMAX, Violet Crown Cinema

Stronger follows the story of Chelmsford, Massachusetts, resident Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), who was at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon to cheer on his on-again-off-again girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany). If you don’t know his name, you certainly remember his face from the iconic photo of him being rescued from the explosion, having just lost both of his legs, with the help of Carlos Arredondo, the so-called “man in the cowboy hat.” He instantly became a symbol of resilience for a city desperate for good news, and the fact that his eyewitness testimony also led to the identification of the perpetrators made him a hero in the eyes of many—including his mother (Miranda Richardson in an award-worthy turn), whose desire for the world to see how strong and brave her son is often hurts Jeff more than it helps.

However, a hero is exactly what Jeff feels he is not. Several times, he asks why standing there getting his “legs blown off” is something to be proud of. His first reaction to “Boston Strong,” the still-ubiquitous (and often monetized) slogan that arose in the wake of the attack, is to wonder what it even means. And as he’s taken to public appearances—Bruins games, his first rehabilitation session and many others—he comes closer and closer to reliving the worst day of his life. On a personal level, his immaturity and inability to show up when needed was a primary reason Erin broke up with him in the first place. And the one time he does manage to show up is when this happens. The pressure of needing to grow and recover at the same time, to be an unwilling figurehead when all he wants to do is hide, leads to the worsening of some pre-injury habits, especially his drinking.

Director David Gordon Green (George Washington, Prince Avalanche, Manglehorn) brings depth and insight into a straightforward narrative, and one that could have easily turned into the same cheap, meaningless inspiration that Jeff fought so hard not to be. The standard Boston beats are there—Red Sox fandom, intertown rivalry, swearing and nosy families—but Green understands the emotional space they occupy in the minds of Massachusetts residents. (In case you can’t tell, I myself am a Boston resident.) Stronger is an affecting film, impressive not only for what it is, but for what it skillfully avoids being.

Playing this week  

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema
377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056

American Assassin, Brazil, IT, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, The Lego Ninjago Movie, Mother!

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX
The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213

American Assassin, Dunkirk, Friend Request, Home Again, IT, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Leap!, The Lego Ninjago Movie, Logan Lucky, Mother!, Spider-man: Homecoming, Wind River

Violet Crown Cinema
200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000

American Assassin, Brad’s Status, Brigsby Bear, Home Again, IT, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, The Lego Ninjago Movie, Mother!, Wind River

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