The slogan “Boston Strong” came to define Massachusetts’s capital in the months following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing which took the lives of three people and injured hundreds more. It was a rallying cry for unity in the face of adversity, but for Jeff Bauman, who lost both of his legs in the attack, it came to embody the imprudent expectation that he play the role of public hero. As everyone around him was desperately clamoring to make sense of a seemingly senseless act, Jeff unwittingly became a crutch upon which others leaned as he was forcibly shaped into a public figure in spite of his personal difficulties. Director David Gordon Green’s Stronger wisely muffles the noise of the patriotic “Boston Strong” fervor and mostly elides emotional grandstanding in favor of meticulously charting the ebbs and flows of Jeff’s physical and mental recovery in the aftermath of the tragedy.
After the bombing, Jeff (Jake Gyllenhaal) reconnects with his ex-girlfriend, Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany), who he’d planned to welcome at the marathon’s finish line. She becomes his caretaker, as well as shields him from his overbearing alcoholic mother, Patty (Miranda Richardson), who seems more concerned with taking advantage of the public appearances that Jeff’s new fame affords them than with his well-being. Once Erin and Jeff start to fall in love again, Green zeroes in on the intricacies of their dysfunctional relationship, offering up an unassuming portrait of wounded love and solitude reminiscent in its sense of detail of the filmmaker’s early work. Green’s approach is unhurried with the film’s character interplay, yielding a lived-in sense of reality and leaving the more inherently cliché-ridden parts of the story, from insensitive family members to the trumpeting of American exceptionalism by the “Boston Strong” commotion, off to the periphery.
Jeff’s detachment from his family members is amplified whenever he overhears them from another room discussing his potential media opportunities, cheering when one of the bombing suspects he identified is caught, or carrying on about how his sacrifice wasn’t for naught. As those closest to him increasingly treat him like some sort of prop, Jeff leans more on Erin for empathy and assistance. And it’s at this point that Stronger increasingly fixates on the binding qualities of love, and without idealizing Jeff and Erin’s relationship. In fact, Green goes to great lengths to show how this relationship is complicated by Jeff’s lingering immaturity and PTSD, as well as by Erin’s frustrations at his unwillingness to put in all the work that’s necessary for him to fully recover. Throughout, their love is deeply intertwined with trauma, and so it’s only natural that many of their most tender, affectionate exchanges occur during painful medical procedures and extensive rehab sessions as they do in the bedroom.
At times, Gyllenhaal appears to be awkwardly stitching at the seams of his character’s emotional outbursts, indulging his hammier instincts. Luckily, though, and following in rhythmic lockstep with the nature of Jeff and Erin’s relationship, Maslany’s performance becomes a calming force for Gyllenhaal. Her restrained turn helps the film’s depiction of a relationship fraught with so much difficulty steer clear of the trap of sentimentality; Erin’s silences are often enough to speak to the totality of her courage. As Jeff and Erin struggle to regain their equilibrium when life begins to settle into a new routine, the narrative gives equal weight to Erin as she copes with the responsibilities of caring for a still somewhat childish man and the prospect of a family on the horizon. Green’s nuanced and balanced rendering of Jeff’s physical rehabilitation and the rebuilding of the couple’s relationship shrewdly reveals the psychic toll these events have taken on both individuals.
As Stronger draws to a close, however, Green can no longer keep the sentimentality that so often plagues films about the disabled at bay. Jeff’s throwing out of the first pitch at a Red Sox game stands as an efficient, if blunt, contrast to his earlier anxiety-ridden appearance before a Bruins playoff game, but the outpouring of love and appreciation he receives from various strangers afterward is intended too conspicuously by the filmmakers to tug at the heartstrings. The entire sequence is jarring for how glaringly out of step it is with the film’s otherwise measured portrayal of Jeff’s travails and emotional perseverance, offering viewers a sense of pat finality that sweeps under the rug the immense hardships that Jeff will continue to face.
But that’s a minor misstep in a film that otherwise presents a complicated and thorny reality that one doesn’t usually get from the average biopic. Stronger’s embrace of the unpredictable nature of Jeff and Erin’s journey yields an array of raw, surprising character beats that flow organically from one to the next, which is to say without feeling preordained to fit within a more traditional story arc. Hollywood will never be able to resist potentially inspirational stories about disabled underdogs, but Green’s film at least shows that even the most Oscar-baity of scenarios can work if overwrought, manipulative melodrama is shunned in favor of a genuine curiosity and empathy for the struggles of average people like Jeff Bauman and Erin Hurley.