by Greg Vellante

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday September 22, 2017

Jake Gyllenhaal stars in 'Stronger'
Jake Gyllenhaal stars in 'Stronger'  

Decades down the line, when I'm telling my grandchildren about the Boston Marathon bombings that occurred on April 15, 2013, there are certain moments and feelings I'm certain will remain fresh. Like the unnerving sensation I felt as my phone buzzed with text after text while I sat in an appointment unable to check what was going on, or the sinking feeling deep down in my stomach that hit when I finally read the messages. Or, for instance, the confusion and fear I felt as I left my appointment and emerged onto Boylston Street, witnessing a collective panic I had never encountered before.

I remember the tears that stung my eyes days later as I stood with friends on the Boston Common, memorializing the victims of the bombing with a moment of silence. I'll never forget the experience of being with these same friends, bunkered away in Allston during a lockdown, watching a manhunt unfold live on the television screen in front of us. I don't know if I would've remembered much of these moments had I dealt with them alone.

This concept of dealing with tragedy, trauma and triumph as both a family and a community rings loud and clear through much of "Stronger," a film which respectfully dramatizes the experience of Jeff Bauman -- a young Bostonian who lost both his legs in the explosion, his plight captured in a now-iconic picture where he's carried to safety by cowboy-hat-wearing hero, Carlos Arredondo. Admirable in its approach to authenticity, "Stronger" teeters on the maudlin from time to time but rarely succumbs to sensationalizing Bauman's story or excessively manipulating the plot for dramatic effect.

The script by John Pollono (his debut feature screenplay, based on the book of the same name by Bauman and Bret Witter) focuses on the necessary elements of Bauman's journey -- his loss, recovery, and rehabilitation -- while also exploring themes that other screenwriters would often either shy away from or completely overdramatize. Themes like alcoholism and PTSD take center stage in ways that feel honest to their origins, pairing up well with the overarching journey by Bauman.

Where "Stronger" truly finds its heart and soul is through a rigorous exploration of relationships, especially those tested by heartbreak, anxiety and everything in between. The tenderness begins in Pollono's movingly-written scenes but is elevated to particularly admirable heights through the compassionate direction of David Gordon Green and strong performances among the entire cast.

Green's best work in the film arrives whenever people are looking at one another. The filmmaker's empathetic eye understands the way we look at each other when we're in pain, in love, afraid or angry, and the pathos generated by leads Jake Gyllenhaal (as Bauman) and Tatiana Maslany as Erin Hurley, his fiercely dedicated ex-girlfriend, is remarkably powerful. Gyllenhaal gives his all in this highly physical performance, while Maslany shatters the mold of her television origins (where she played an abundance of different clones on "Orphan Black") and delivers a striking and moving big-screen breakthrough.

The MVP, however, is Miranda Richardson as Patty Bauman, a performance so emotionally stripped and fully realized that at times I wished the entire movie focused solely on this mother-son relationship. The rest of Bauman's exhaustively involved extended family brings a hearty helping of laughs and sincerity to the film as well, with a special shout-out to Boston's own Lenny Clarke as "Uncle Bob." If you grew up in or around Boston, odds are you know someone exactly like these characters. I'm sure for some it will feel like watching their own family documented on screen.

Overall, "Stronger" is a worthy tribute to not just Jeff Bauman's story, but everything his story represented and everyone his story impacted -- from the people who witnessed his recovery firsthand, to the bystanders who encountered his story through the media and applied Jeff's struggles to their own in hopes of making things feel a little bit easier. If he can find this strength inside of him, regardless of his situation, why can't I do the same? This is what "Stronger" strives for the audience to ask themselves, and this mentality was reflected all throughout Boston during the weeks and months that followed.

"Boston Strong" does not refer to a fabricated character played by Mark Wahlberg for purposes of ego stroking in last year's offensively virile "Patriots Day." It refers to the strength inside of all of us -- as a city, as a community, and as a family. "Stronger" gets it.


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