I was upset three years when Jake Gyllenhaal didn’t land an Academy Award nomination for what I consider his best performance, in the creepy and memorable Nightcrawler, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. Now he is back with an equally fine and Oscar-worthy performance as Boston Marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman in the terrific Stronger, which had its world premiere tonight at TIFF. Although this film falls into the ever-bulging genre of inspirational stories of courage and hope against all odds, director David Gordon Green has given Bauman’s story a grittier, less predictable edge with Gyllenhaal never going for cheap sentiment or movie cliches.
This is real life played as real life, warts and all. As I say in my video review (click the link above to watch), Stronger earns its tears honestly, even with some surprising humor mixed in with heavily dramatic scenes. Bauman lost both legs when a bomb went off near the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon, where he was standing to watch his then-girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany) finish her run. She was uninjured, but he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, which led to a long period of rehabilitation and learning to walk on his new $100,000 prosthetic legs. With a screenplay by John Pollono adapting Bauman’s book, the film does his story justice without any level of sugarcoating.
Last year another film, Patriots Day from Mark Wahlberg and Peter Berg, tackled the Boston bombing story very well but in a more procedural kind of way. Stronger makes it solely personal as it focuses on this Costco clerk whose life is upended in one single moment. The film does not hold back even in making its main subject unlikable at times, showing the toll this kind of traumatic injury can take on not just the victim but the people who love him. In that regard there is an excellent supporting cast including Maslany, an Emmy winner last year for Orphan Black, who shows a different side in this film; she’s no less impressive as Bauman’s girlfriend and, later, wife and mother of his child.
But it is British actress Miranda Richardson who pretty much steals every scene she’s in as Patty, Bauman’s dedicated and feisty mother. I have seem Richardson take on many roles in the past, but this ranks among her best. She’s just great in an award-caliber turn. Clancy Brown also is fine as his father, but it is Gyllenhaal who deserves most of the credit for another completely dedicated and ferocious portrayal, in this case of a man determined not to let outside or inner demons destroy him. It is a brave and uncompromising portrait of human willpower.
Stronger is a movie that makes us stronger just watching it. In some ways, not just because of the setting, it reminds me of 2010’s Oscar-nominated The Fighter, which, while very different, shares some of the grit and human spirit of this film. It is probably no accident that both were produced by Todd Lieberman and David Hoberman. This one definitely is worth your time. Roadside Attractions/Lionsgate releases it on September 22.
Do you plan to see Stronger? Let us know what you think.