Stronger Shows Us How to Champion the Unimaginable

In the wake of public tragedy, America often looks to art to make sense of human suffering. This source of comfort leads us to some uncomfortable questions. How can we depict horrific events while focusing on the good rather than the bad? How can we use situations that have the potential to divide us to bring us closer together? Capturing the American hero is difficult at best, but David Gordon Green’s new film Stronger makes it look easy.

The film follows the story of Boston marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) as he copes with life as a double amputee. We only get a brief glimpse into Jeff’s life before the fateful marathon scene, but we get enough to background to realize that he’s a cheerful but slightly irresponsible man-child who loves the Red Sox, beer, and his ex-girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany).

If this makes Jeff seem like a questionable character, Gyllenhaal’s performance makes him undeniably lovable while gently criticizing his personal shortcomings. It’s worth noting that the real Jeff Bauman co-wrote Stronger, which is adapted from his 2014 book, and has become personal friends with his on-screen double, which probably helped shape the part. Gyllenhaal’s portrayal depicts the human spirit’s ability to overcome without glossing over the character’s many flaws. His extensive research for the role shines through especially in his rendering of the excruciating pain of amputation—his scenes in the hospital are so raw and emotional that you almost want to look away. 

Stronger might focus on Jeff’s story, but it’s very much an ensemble film. Maslany’s performance as his on-again-off-again girlfriend struggling with guilt is beautiful; she perfectly balances Erin’s love for Jeff with her frustration at the helplessness he exhibits after the bombing. Miranda Richardson is a scene-stealer as Jeff’s often drunk and slightly overbearing mother Patty, and Clancy Brown’s depiction of his father reveals a character weighing his classic ideas of manhood with his concerns about his son. Danny McCarthy also shines as Jeff’s boss Kevin, an unsung hero of the film who frankly deserved more screen time.

Stronger is a love story with many threads that link an unlikely hero with a reluctant soulmate, a family facing unimaginable tragedy, and a city with a nation rallying around it. Come to theaters prepared to laugh and cry, and leave with new hope for humanity. Stronger opens on Friday, September 22nd.