October 03, 2017
"Strength Defines Us" is the tagline for the new film, "Stronger," which is ironic since one of it's protagonists' biggest obstacles is taking care of himself versus being a symbol to others.
"Stronger" stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Jeff Bauman, the real-life Costco employee who lost both his legs in above-the-knee amputations owing to wounds from the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and who, during his rehabilitation, was thrust into a public role. Gyllenhaal has already generated Oscar talk for his brilliantly understated portrayal of Bauman. There are no "Rocky"-like training montages or music to chronicle his long, hard rehabilitation.
In fact, what makes "Stronger" – and Gyllenhaal's performance – so unique is that it focuses on the mental and emotional hurdles it's hero has to overcome, rather than his obvious physical ones.
After the bombing, Bauman becomes a hero and celebrity, being invited to a multitude of appearances and events. Unbeknownst to his mother, Patty, with a memorable performance by Miranda Richardson, with whom he lives, Jeff is going through a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, which comes to the fore when the spotlight is put on him at Red Sox and Bruin games and other events.
This brings Richardson's Patty in direct conflict with Tatiana Maslany's Erin, an ex-girlfriend whom he had been at the finish line of the Marathon to show support. Maslany is a standout here, balancing vulnerability and guilt with a resolve of steel, particularly when she stands up to Jeff's family and tells them flatly that this attention they are all enjoying is coming at Jeff's expense. It is an Oscar-worthy performance.
So is Gyllenhall's. He imbues Jeff with facial expressions and body language and quiet inflections of his voice that prove far more powerful than the loud, emotional scenes that remind audiences he is acting that would be so prevalent in similar films.
In the end, "Stronger" is about seeing whether or not Jeff is strong enough to grow up and overcome his demanding mother; whether Erin is strong enough to believe in Jeff – and whether Jeff is strong enough to accept his new reality, his new role and in the end, can believe in himself.