Not since the Amy Winehouse documentary has a film given so much attention to someone who just wanted to be left alone.
David Gordon Green’s Stronger tells the true story of Jeff Bauman, a man who lost his legs at the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and helped identify one of the bombers. Jeff’s image was immortalized in this famous photo (warning graphic). The film mostly concentrates on his emotional and physical recovery that followed. In addition to adjusting to life in a wheelchair, the high profile nature of Bauman’s story brought with it an uncomfortable amount of public attention. The media tried to make him a hero, but Bauman just wanted to get better and stop depending on his girlfriend (Tatiana Maslany) and family for everything. While Bauman’s story is certainly a dramatic one, it feels a little thin at times. The film’s trailer gives you a good sense of the entire film, which is thoroughly depressing until it ends on the obligatory uplifting postscript.
Unfortunately we don’t get any of David Gordon Green’s indie sensibilities in this film that feels very much like award bait. Gyllenhaal’s inevitable nomination is well deserved, but it’s doubtful that Green going all David O. Russell on us will payoff as well as The Fighter or Silver Linings Playbook did for that once daring director. And of course the film is peppered with thick Boston accents and stereotypes. If movies like this have taught me anything, it’s that the only things people from Boston care about is beer, baseball and being from Boston.
There are also several odd tonal beats and muddled messages in the film. In one scene, Jeff’s manager from Costco visits the hospital and his family is convinced it’s to let them know Costco can no longer employ him, instead a big deal is made of their employee insurance covering his medical expenses. Throughout the rest of the film, we can see Costco labels on his pills, Costco posters on his wall (!), and while we never see him go back to work there, his manager becomes a permanent fixture at family gatherings. This leads to a forced attempt at humour as Jeff’s brothers attempt to be open minded around the homosexual manager. Perhaps the manager’s constant presence is also there to help reenforce a strange recurring message on the importance of just “showing up” (um… okay).
The cast led by Gylenhaal, Maslany, and Miranda Richardson (as Jeff’s mom), are all giving incredible performances, unfortunately it all feels just a little too Hollywood. If you’re looking for a movie about the Boston Marathon bombing, Patriots Day is stronger.