‘Stronger’ Isn’t Your Typical Triumph-Over-Adversity Movie

A couple Fridays ago, at the world premiere of Stronger at the Toronto Film Festival, Jeff Bauman walked onto the stage at Roy Thompson Hall (which, in itself, is inspiring) before the film started and addressed the crowd – a crowd already giving him a standing ovation before even seeing the film. While introducing his story, he reminded the crowd, in an almost spoilery way, that no matter how dark the story we were about to see became, just remember that he’s right here right now, talking to us. That everything we saw on-screen would turn out okay. While watching Stronger, I did have to remind myself of that a few times.

At first, I thought Bauman was talking about whether he’d live or die after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, which led to him losing both of his legs above the knee – but that’s not where the heart of the struggle comes from in Stronger. The film doesn’t dwell long on Bauman’s mortality, but instead takes us to the far depths of human depression that occurs when one day everything is fine and the next nothing is fine and there’s no rational explanation of why any of this happened. When watching Jake Gyllenhaal as Jeff Bauman, we aren’t as worried about him dying as we are his sanity.

Also, for all the praise given to Jake Gyllenhaal as an actor, he still doesn’t get nearly enough credit. How do we live in a world in which Gyllenhaal has only been nominated for one Academy Award? And even that was 12 years ago. We’ve seen actors play these types of roles before, but Gyllenhaal gives Bauman a depth we usually don’t see in movies like this. Stronger isn’t your typical “person overcomes adversity” movie – and a big reason for that, too, is the direction of David Gordon Green – but at the heart is Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany.

Oh, yes, Tatiana Maslany – we’ve also seen a lot of actors play the supportive character who are just doing their best to help, but there’s a lot going on in Maslany’s performance.

Stonger doesn’t waste a lot of time before the events of April 15, 2013. It’s an interesting decision because we don’t get to spend much time with Jeff (Gyllenhaal) and Erin (Maslany) before their lives are upended. It’s established that the two used to be together but had recently broken up and that Jeff went to the marathon to root for Erin in an effort to win back her affection. This sets up an interesting dynamic that Maslany plays well: What, exactly, is her obligation to Jeff? Erin takes it upon herself to help, but is it out of love or guilt or both? Especially when Jeff starts going off the deep end: getting drunk, starting bar fights, and just generally recoiling in his own misery. What’s Erin’s obligation to stay with this person?

Maslany portrays Erin as a conflicted woman gripped by an array of emotions about the situation she’s in – a situation that doesn’t really even have a correct answer. That complexity extends throughout the film, even to the moment depicted in the still above, of Gyllenhaal as Jeff at a Boston Bruins game. It looks triumphant, but there’s a lot more going on that night than the image suggests, and that sends Jeff down a dark road. In a lesser movie, this might be the final shot. Here, it’s the first sign that there’s a lot of trouble ahead.

Stronger, surprisingly, doesn’t have many scenes of physical rehabilitation. I just assumed we’d see some kind of montage as Jeff builds back his strength so that he can walk again. I thought the “stronger” the title alludes to would be in reference to physical strength. But that’s why Stronger isn’t your typical movie about this subject and David Gordon Green isn’t your typical director.

(Though, there is one scene in particular that will stick with anyone who sees this movie. It’s a scene where the doctors first remove Jeff’s bandages, allowing Jeff to see his injures for the first time. Jeff refuses to look, and the camera stays with Jeff’s face from above, while we can both see him and what the doctors are doing at the same time. This is David Gordon Green at his best.)

This is a movie about overcoming depression. And, good God, Jeff has every reason in the world to be depressed and Erin has every reason in the world to leave Jeff. It was a harrowing ordeal for everyone involved. But there he was that night, walking on that stage to an ovation, more worried about us, the audience, than anything else. And, at that moment, he was probably right.

You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.