Stronger

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  Stronger
 

On a sunny April morning in 2013, Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) was on a mission to win back his girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany, TV's 'Orphan Black') by holding a banner to greet her at the Boston marathon finish line.  When the bombs went off, he lost both his legs, but Erin was there to support his rehabilitation as he struggled with the idea of becoming a symbol of how Boston had grown "Stronger."

Laura:
"Patriots Day" may have been well received critically in most parts of the country, but it was called to task in Boston, Mark Wahlberg's fictional Tommy Saunders deemed ludicrous (the movie that went on around him, however, was a solid police procedural).  Now we have the second film based on the event, this time about a real person.  It's a very different film (to the best of my recollection, the name Tsarnaev is never uttered), focused on the recovery and romantic relationship of the survivor made famous by the iconic wheelchair photo featured in headlines nationwide.  Yet once again, Bostonians may chafe at how their own are represented, the Bauman family's antics recalling the loud, boozy, R-dropping, sports obsessed family played for laughs in "The Heat."  Gyllenhaal himself is more than fine, but supporting players surrounding him suggest that if there was a hero in this story, it was Erin Hurley.

Hurley seems uncomfortable when she's spotted by her ex in a local bar, but his charm wins her over once again, Jeff's hilariously off color appeal to bar patrons for marathon contributions amusing all but his barfly mom Patty (Miranda Richardson, "Churchill").  Patty doesn't understand her son's attraction to the 'Amesbury girl,' perhaps resenting Erin's education, job in hospital administration and wealthier suburban home town.

It is ironic that Jeff is standing at the finish line that day, Erin's chief complaint being that 'he never shows up for anything.'  As Erin runs down Boylston Street, she sees the bombs go off (in reality, Hurley was a mile from the finish line).  When she catches Jeff's shattered body being wheeled away on TV, she rushes to the hospital, where his loud, raucous family has already gathered, and sits quietly in the background.  Jeff's Costco boss Kevin (Danny McCarthy, "Elvis & Nixon") enters with a muffin basket and a folder only to meet with fury until he manages to convince the Baumans he's on Jeff's side (only Uncle 'I'm the only one with a credit score over 520' Bob, played by Boston comic Lenny Clarke as the most toned down Bauman, has given him a chance).

Jeff awakens with a friend at his bedside and gestures for a pen.  He writes down three things. 'How's Erin?,' 'Lt. Dan' (the Baumans' gallows humor goes a long way towards his recovery) and 'I saw the bomber.'  But Jeff has a rocky start to his rehabilitation - until Erin moves into his resentful mother's cramped apartment.

Director David Gordon Green ("Pineapple Express") surprises us once again with his refusal to be pigeon holed, this time around adding new life to the 'inspirational' genre with inventive visual story telling (cinematography by Sean Bobbitt, "12 Years a Slave") and his flawed protagonist.  John Pollono faithfully adapts Jeff Bauman & Bret Witter's novel with its warts and all portrayal of Bauman.  Gyllenhaal has gone to great lengths to disappear into the warm-hearted but immature man whose PTSD makes him fear crowds and question the motives of those, like the Boston Bruins, who wheel him out at public events.  We've never seen Gyllenhaal like this before and I'm not talking about his distracting brown contacts or lack of legs.  The actor calibrates his manchild with believable insights into heroism, his need for Erin with fear of responsibility, creating a character at once sympathetic and frustrating.  In her first major screen role, Maslany miraculously avoids the sainthood we ascribe her character with her melding of guilt and love, both tough and tender.  But in reaching for salt-of-the-earth Bostonian style, the British Richardson fails to find any redeeming qualities in Patty, portrayed here as an  opportunistic lush whose golden boy is a ticket to Oprah.

Jeff finds peace with his celebrity status in two scenes that let other supporting players shine.  As Carlos Arredondo, the cowboy hatted civilian first responder (significantly not featured in "Patriots Day", Carlos Sanz ("Crank") has a moving moment giving Jeff perspective.  Later, after throwing the first pitch at a Red Sox game, Jeff has gained enough emotional stability to talk to the crowd on the way out, meeting Larry (James LeBlanc, "Spotlight"), a man who lost his brother to a wartime IED and LeBlanc's heartfelt speech gives Bauman a deeper understanding of what his rebound means to others.  These scenes stand in stark contrast to an earlier scene where a Chelmsford cop stops Bauman for drunk driving (really!), then asks for a selfie.

Gordon Green makes us wince through the first removal of Jeff's bandages, Jeff and Erin's foreheads touching in the foreground, the painful action unfocused just beyond.  The arduous road back culminates in Jeff awkwardly lurching on his high-tech custom prosthetics towards the Bickford's family restaurant where Erin waits.  As is usual, the film wraps with pictures of the real couple welcoming their daughter and Jeff's second try at welcoming Erin at the marathon finish line, but neglects to mention that the couple announced their divorce earlier this year.

Grade:  B

Robin:
Robin did not see this film.
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