Movie Review: Stronger
By Matthew Huntley
October 3, 2017
Typical model for “inspirational drama based on a true story”: a humble, likable, and often blue-collar individual suffers tragic loss; initially, individual is motivated to overcome new hardship but soon grows frustrated and becomes self-destructive; eventually, he or she discovers “what really matters” and ultimately realizes their life is all the richer for having endured and surmounted their adverse situation.
Most of the time, movies that follow this pattern (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” “127 Hours,” “Rush”) work because they're unique, dramatic and remarkable enough not to be predictable. They're also adapted with some special vision or boldness by the filmmakers.
Then there are others (“The Blind Side,” “Extraordinary Measures”) that make it all too easy to spot the machinations of a contrived screenplay, which simply target our emotional buttons. These are also the ones in which the filmmakers probably assumed, or at least hoped, the uplifting story would mask the banality of the presentation.
The generically titled “Stronger” falls somewhere in between. It hovers between good and just okay, although it mostly leans toward the latter. It's heartrending and well acted, but at the end of the day, it feels too average to warrant our full investment. It pains me to write this, given the actual individuals and the challenges they faced (and no doubt continue to face today), but just because someone has experienced a trying and seemingly insurmountable ordeal in real life doesn't mean their experience makes for compelling cinema. “Stronger” might have if it was presented in a different way, but as is, it's rather standard.
Based on the same-name memoir by Jeff Bauman and Brett Witter, the film follows Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) after he loses both his legs during the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Bauman was a spectator at the race, waiting at the finish line for his on-again/off-again girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany), with whom he hoped to get back together. The film even suggests one of the terrorists bumped into Jeff as he was holding his homemade sign.
Jeff's life, like many people's, would be forever changed that April 15th. Days later, he wakes up in a hospital bed and learns the doctors had to amputate both his legs from the knee down and that he might never walk again. His family, of course, is devastated, overwhelmed and angered by this news, especially his compulsive and over-protective mother, Patty (Miranda Richardson), with whom Jeff lives as he works in the meat department at Costco. She falls back on her cigarettes and alcohol just to maintain a grip while his father (Clancy Brown), uncle (Lenny Clarke), aunts and closest friends yell, curse and trade insults with one another instead of showing love and affection, or maybe this is their way of showing love and affection.
Once Jeff processes his situation, he initially vows to do whatever it takes to walk again, but his determination and willing attitude gradually give way to feelings of frustration, anger and anxiety, especially when he's deemed the unofficial spokesperson and symbol for marathon survivors. At the Bruins game, for instance, Erin pushes him out onto the ice in his wheel chair so he can wave the American flag, but the loud cheers, flashing cameras and rambunctious fans give him a panic attack.
A bright spot in all this is that Erin starts to fall in love with Jeff again and commits herself to supporting him, or at least she will to a point. Amidst his grueling physical therapy, his encounters with “fans” and admirers who constantly ask for his picture and thoughts on the terrorists/conspiracies, and his feelings of dependency and hopelessness, Jeff starts to do what many of his family members and friends do, which is to take comfort in alcohol. This behavior leads to various run-ins with the law, bar fights and yelling matches with Erin until Jeff finally realizes it's be up to him to either let his handicap consume him or for him to control it.
Even if we didn't know “Stronger” was based on a real-life individual, the nature and trajectory of this story, in the context of a Hollywood movie, are overly familiar and routine. As it plays out, we come to expect fewer surprises from it and the movie merely meets our expectations. By the end, it's hard for us to believe it won't go out on an upbeat, positive note, with footage of the real Jeff and Erin.
My reservations are in no way meant to undermine Jeff's experience or inspirational journey toward self-acceptance and peace of mind, and I can only image the pain and trauma he must have suffered. Indeed one of the film's strengths is the way it gets us to empathize with the characters, thanks in large part to the performances, which are raw, genuine and unaffected. Director David Gordon Green specializes in telling stories about non-glamorous, working-class people who have something unusually dramatic happen to them. The problem with “Stronger” is that it doesn't contextualize its drama in a way we haven't seen before. Despite the filmmakers and cast being completely dedicated to and respectful of the material, their good intentions only go so far before we simply watch the movie jump through foreseen hoops. When that starts to happen, our investment inevitably wanes and we simply check out.