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A story of triumph that’s tough as its Boston townie protagonist

Photo: Jake Gyllenahaal portrays Boston Marathon bombing victum in new drama film

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Over the course of the next few months, readers will be privy to my critically curated catalogue of films from the Toronto International Film Festival. This journey began during the festival itself with last week’s review of Darren Aronofsky’s “Mother!” and continues immediately with “Stronger,” director David Gordon Green’s account of the story of Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), a regular Boston townie who became a symbol to the world when he lost his legs during the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. The film is the latest in a long line of biopics and real-life dramas aiming to tug at our heartstrings by spotlighting the mythic can-do spirit we have been conditioned to accept as our country’s birthright.

But “Stronger” attempts to strip away the patriotic glory and the inspirational trappings foisted on this man and his experiences after the fact. It focuses on the pain and anxiety of survival, not just from Bauman’s perspective, but that of Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany), his girlfriend who was running in the marathon and begged him to meet her at the finish line, his raucous family, primarily represented by Patty Bauman (Miranda Richardson), his drunken and beleaguered mother, and Carlos (Carlos Sanz), the man who rushed to his aid in those precarious moments when his life hung in the balance.

From the onset, we see Jeff as a never-do-well type, a sweet-natured guy, happiest when he’s drinking with his friends and family at their local bar, while watching the Bruins, Celtics, Red Sox, or the Patriots, depending on the season. When he’s not among his people lubricating himself, he works at one of the big box stores, prepping and cooking food. There’s a carelessness to how he lives life, which he brandishes like it’s a charming aspect of his character, and he’s been lucky enough thus far to get by.

The one person not completely enthralled by this attitude is Erin, a hospital administrator who, despite having genuine affection for Jeff, has the sense that she wants something more from him and her own life. Their on-again, off-again relationship hits what appears to be an ultimatum point. She’s running the marathon and wants to see him at the finish line. She needs a sign of commitment from Jeff, and if he’s a no-show this time, you know that she will walk away forever.

Ironically, the one time Jeff does show up, Erin is unable to be there, because once the homemade bombs left by the Tsarnaev brothers start detonating, she is among the runners forced to flee for safety. Jeff, meanwhile is at ground zero, so close, in fact, that he remembers bumping into one of the suspects, although it will take some time before anyone makes the connection.

Once Jeff finally emerges from the initial stages of surgery and acceptance of his situation, the film quietly captures Erin’s guilt and conflicted feelings surrounding Jeff and their relationship. She loves him, but is loving (or even being in love with him – which she’s not quite sure of) going to be enough to make it through what is to come. And then there is his family, a motley crew of working class folks, as quick to battle amongst themselves as they are with the world. Their stubborn pride, while not immediately apparent in Jeff, proves to be the foundation that propels him through his most trying moments.

Finally, Jeff’s encounter with Carlos serves as a reckoning of sorts. All the hesitation and frustration we see in each and every step of Jeff’s long recovery process, gets embodied in the idea of sitting down with Carlos. Jeff fears considering if Carlos actually saved him that day or condemned him to a life that might not be worth living.

The true strength on display throughout the film stems from Gyllenhaal who has always had an edgy, almost twitchy kind of presence. There is a dark storm constantly brewing behind his eyes and a rage that he’s never been able to unleash. I find myself watching his performances in films like “Demolition” and “Nocturnal Animals” (both of which are previous Toronto International Film Festival submissions) wishing and waiting for the full-on release. I want him to find the peace he and his characters seem to deserve.

With “Stronger,” once again, I feel that he has somehow been denied, but this time it is alright. His version of Jeff Bauman does, at the very least, get to break free of the burden of being our national sacrificial lamb, in a small but meaningful way. By sharing his story, he opens everyone else up to telling and owning their own traumas. His hard-won resolve serves to remind the larger Boston community (and the world) of their own fortitude.
Rating: PG-13
Grade: B