Film Review: Stronger

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Sam Bathe on 8 Dec 2017

In 2013, Jeff Bauman lost both of his legs below the knee in the Boston Marathon bombings. David Gordon Green’s film Stronger is an adaptation of Bauman’s memoir of the same name, and depicts Bauman’s struggles coming to terms with his new life dealing with disability and living in an area of Boston that is not exactly conducive to his needs.

In the opening scenes we see Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) hanging around with his friends and trying to reignite his relationship with on-again-off-again girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany). That seems to be going moderately well until Bauman attends the marathon as a spectator to cheer Erin on. In the aftermath of the bombing, their relationship will be tested again, but in wholly different and more stressful circumstances.

Green’s film is, of course, a story of triumph over adversity, but for the majority of its runtime it tries to sidestep most of the clichés that can creep into the genre, and in general avoids the kind of mawkishness that can derail emotional impact.

Although Stronger depicts people admiring Bauman as a hero, the film wisely doesn’t elevate him as such. In general, the focus stays on at ground level, and doesn’t try to deal with the political side of the story. Gyllenhaal plays Bauman as a likeable but flawed character, and the film wisely doesn’t shy away from either of those traits after the accident. In the first act there are some jarring tonal shifts that prevented me from really settling into the film, and some scenes with Bauman’s family and friends that felt like they were trying a little too hard, but once I relaxed into the characters I discovered a well made, if not exceptional, film.

If some of the scenes involving the supporting cast aren’t always as solid as they could be – despite the presence of Miranda Richardson as Bauman’s alcoholic mother – the leads are capable of carrying most of it by themselves. Gyllenhaal’s is a strong performance – there are moments when he’s called upon to emote in a fairly visceral way, but in general it’s a performance not afraid of subtlety. The real star of the film for me, though, is Tatiana Maslany, who is really impressive as Erin, a woman who gives up her time and emotions to a man who, prior to the bombing, she wasn’t technically attached to. Maslany convinces as a woman offering a lot but not necessarily receiving much in return, and makes the character of Tatiana as vital to the narrative as Bauman himself. She also gets the film’s last and best-delivered line of dialogue, which rounds things off on a powerful note.

Stronger is the second film in just four years to deal with the events of the 2013 Boston Marathon, after Peter Berg’s Patriots Day last year, although they approach the subject matter from very  different perspectives. Stronger takes a stripped-down approach and focuses in on the way that day affected the lives of just a few people, and is generally successful in doing so. It doesn’t stray too far from the conventions of the genre in which it sits, but there are a couple of scenes where it takes risks – most notably one in which Bauman has his legs bandaged – and is successful in doing so.

It treats its subject matter seriously and apolitically and makes the admirable decision to stay grounded. Even if not all of its elements are entirely successful – the supporting cast didn’t add a huge amount for me, beyond  one scene in a cafe, and the script is tonally a little inconsistent – Stronger is nevertheless a well-acted double header and worth a look for Gyllenhaal and Maslany alone.

3/5

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