In bringing the real-life story of Boston Marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) to the screen, it's easy to assume we know what kind of story to expect from a film like "Stronger": a blandly inspirational tale of triumph over adversity, told against the backdrop of a national tragedy. But director David Gordon Green has much more on his mind.
When we first meet him, Bauman seems a lovable screw-up, living with his borderline alcoholic mother (Miranda Richardson) and working at Costco. He has a relationship with an on-again-off-again girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany, "Orphan Black"), though in its current state, it's very much off again.
Erin's running the marathon, and though they've been broken up for a month, Jeff decides that he'll be waiting for her at the finish line. It's a sweet gesture, clearly meant to win her back and prove to her that he can be depended on to show up for someone else, as she's claimed he's incapable of doing. But just as Erin's rounding the final turn, two blasts go off, destroying both of Jeff's legs. Both of their lives are suddenly and irrevocably changed.
There are a number of set paths a film like this could follow, but "Stronger" seems determined to avoid almost all of them. It might have shown us how Jeff determinedly learns to walk again (which he does), or it could follow as he assists the FBI in their investigation (and he did, helping identify the bombing suspects). Instead, Green's low-key but sure-handed direction maintains a focus on character over incident. He's more interested in tracking the psychological toll of being thrust into the limelight while simultaneously being forced to recalibrate nearly every aspect of one's life.
Jeff becomes a local and national hero, but he's uncomfortable with the attention as he becomes the face of "Boston Strong." Taking up the mantle, he avoids showing any weakness while navigating the long, agonizingly slow road to recovery and learning the daily hardships that come from living with a disability. It's a disconnect that makes us consider what the world asks of its heroes, and the effect of turning a flesh-and-blood human into a symbol, no matter how beneficial that symbol may be.
Even coming off an impressive run of great performances, Gyllenhaal is superb. He allows us to sympathize with Jeff, while also seeing how frustrating he can frequently be, and the script (from John Pollono, adapting Bauman's own book, penned with author Bret Witter) doesn't turn him into a saint. Maslany is equally great, showing us how Erin experiences doubts throughout the story. As much as she loves and wants to be there for Jeff, she's conflicted about tying herself to a man she's already kicked to the curb three times.
Green has had an impressively chameleonic career, ranging from the stoner comedies "Pineapple Express" to "Your Highness" to more impressionistic dramas "George Washington" and "Prince Avalanche." The filmmaker is much more in the later mode here, finding honesty in the story, never allowing things to be as neat and tidy as they might have been in another filmmaker's hands. Beautifully directed and performed, "Stronger" is emotional, moving, and even inspirational, in the best possible sense of the word.
Visit rochestercitynewspaper.com on Friday for additional film coverage, including a review of "Columbus," starring John Cho.