Watching the trailer for Stronger, it would be easy to dismiss it as nothing more than Oscar bait. Adapted from the memoir by Jeff Bauman and Bret Witter, Stronger couldn’t have been scripted better. After losing his legs in the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing, Bauman (Gyllenhaal) becomes a local hero when he helps the police catch the Tsarnaev brothers. Cue montages where Gyllenhaal sweats and grunts while Jeff learns to use prosthetics. While it’s true Gyllenhaal should probably start putting together a list of people to thank, it’s also true that the film is much more complex than it seems.
Rather than show how Jeff is bolstered by the people of Boston or his family, the film goes for something much darker, more nuanced. Usually in these stories, the focus is on the recovery and while there’s a good deal of that here, first-time screenwriter John Pollono (who’s spent most of his career acting in TV shows like This is Us and Mob City) is more concerned with the effects the explosion and the fame that came from it have on Bauman.
Typically, when a normal person becomes a hero for surviving tragedy, that fame is unquestioned. That’s not the case here. Instead, fame is a burden that keeps Jeff from healing. There is something distasteful in the way tragedy can be commodified and here, that’s represented in the way people keep telling Jeff he embodies what it means to be “Boston Strong.”
Rather than play into that same commodification, Stronger uses it to expose its underlying selfishness. The people who celebrate Jeff (especially his crass, obnoxious family) aren’t concerned with how Jeff feels. He’s just the symbol of their bravery and resilience. When he waves a flag before a Bruins game, the crowd cheers not because he’s excited to be there–quite the contrary–but because seeing him makes them feel better.
There is, perhaps, no character that embodies that grotesque commodification more than Miranda Richardson as Jeff’s mother, Patty. Rather than become a pillar of strength in Jeff’s time of need, she becomes another source of stress as she both enables his worst habits and exploits his injury. Rather than confront Jeff’s trauma, she becomes obsessed with the way people turn him into a hero. She forces him to give interviews, make appearances and drunkenly reads the condolence letters he receives late at night. It’s the kind of performance that’s impossible to ignore and if hers and Gyllenhaal’s characters had a big, emotional fight in the third act, she’d already be a contender for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
Instead, it’s his on-again-off-again relationship with Erin, played by Orphan Black‘s Tatiana Maslany. While the film is good when it focuses on Jeff’s recovery or the way his rowdy friends and family react to his injury, it comes alive whenever Gyllenhaal and Maslany share the screen.
In their first scene together pre-bombing, Gyllenhaal has to show us just how lively and charming Jeff is so that his PTSD after the bombing stands out in sharper relief. He’s a smooth-talker and the way he grandstands to get everyone in the bar to donate to Erin’s marathon run shows just how far he’ll go to get her back. Maslany, on the other hand, is reserved, wary. Erin is clearly charmed by Jeff’s antics, but she also remembers the flakiness that led her to break up with him in the first place. Though Pollono gives them little dialogue to work with, both actors tell us everything we need to know about their history and the relationship dynamic established there propels them through the film.
While Maslany and Gyllenhaal are both excellent, it’s the latter who will probably generate Oscar buzz. Gyllenhaal’s work is showier, more method and his commitment to his roles over the last few years is precisely what’s made him an actor to watch. Still, it’s a shame. While Gyllenhaal makes his work obvious, Maslany just is Erin. She makes acting look like alchemy and for those in the audience unfamiliar with her work, the performance will be a revelation.
Still, regardless of which actor does or doesn’t eventually get awards buzz, it’s what they create together that makes Stronger so remarkable. Gyllenhaal’s best work isn’t when Jeff is sweating and grunting while he learns to use his prosthetic legs, it’s the scenes when Jeff reacts to Erin. Jeff Bauman may have been labeled a hero for identifying the Tsarnaevs, but when Dzhokhar is caught, we’re not in the room with Jeff’s family as they celebrate. We’re in the hospital room with him and Erin, because for Jeff, that’s what’s really mattered.