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by Peter Sobczynski

"A Step Above."
5 stars

I must confess that every time a movie comes along that purports to tell the inspirational true story of someone triumphing over incredible odds, especially if the narrative somehow involves a great tragedy, the hairs on my neck begin to rise. For actors, such films are catnip because there are few things more likely to attract the attention of Oscar voters, especially if some kind of debilitating physical impairment is thrown into the mix as well. That is all well and good for them but I have begun to develop a genuine distaste for such things over the years for a variety of reasons—the stories all tend to be the same in the broad sense, the actors seem more interested in replicating the physical actions of the characters than in inhabiting them emotionally and, perhaps most importantly, the films tend to straddle the line between relatable drama and naked exploitation and more often than not end up leaning towards the latter. However, when such a film is done well and with dignity and intelligence, I am perfectly capable of responding to it in a favorable manner and that is the case with “Stronger.” On the surface, it may look like the usual slice of vaguely nurturing and somewhat enervating Oscar bait but in the hands of the wonderful filmmaker David Gordon Green, it becomes a film that is acutely aware of both the pitfalls and cathartic pleasures inherent in this type of storytelling and does a very good job of largely avoiding the former and arriving at the latter in an honest and entertaining manner.

When we first meet Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), he seems like a sketch comedy version of an archetypal Boston dude—an amiable screwup man-boy who still lives with his domineering mother (Miranda Richardson), has a low-level job at the local Costco and spends his free time watching the Red Sox while pounding beers with his buddies. One day, while doing just that, he runs into Erin (Tatiana Maslany), with whom he has had a long-running on/off relationship that is currently in the off-stage, as she is soliciting charity donations for the 2013 Boston Marathon that she is going to be running the next day. Jeff makes a big grandstanding gesture to get the other drinkers to cough up money and while she is appreciative, she is still not interested in getting back together with him because he prefers to sit on the sidelines of life and screw around instead of taking the initiative to actually show up and make changes in order to become a better person. Determined to prove her wrong and to show his sincerity on just a small scale, Jeff impulsively decides to make a point to show up at the finish line with a sign to greet Erin as she completes the marathon. He does show up but he inadvertently winds up right next to one of the two bombs that have been planted by a pair of terrorists and when he finally wakes up later in the hospital, he learns that the explosion has taken both of his legs just above the knee.

Because he was the unwitting subject of a powerful photograph taken while he was being tended to on the scene and because he was able to give the police a description that helped lead to the eventual takedown of the bombers, Jeff becomes a local hero and even gets the highest possible accolade that someone like him could possibly wish for—to go out on the ice before a Bruins game to the cheers of thousands of fans. Alas, neither that nor the constant refrain of “Boston Strong” that he hears wherever he goes is enough to make up for the new reality that is now his life, one in which once-simple tasks like taking a shower or using the toilet now take on onerous proportions. (In one of the most understated yet affecting moments in the film, we witness the emptying of a sock drawer of the contents that he will never use again. Throw in Jeff’s struggles with rehabilitation and learning to walk again with prosthetic legs and his overbearing mother, who elects to “surprise” her son with the news that Oprah will be coming over the next day to interview him at home and then pouts when he insists that he doesn’t want to do it, and it all threatens to become too much to bear. The one positive to all of this is that Jeff and Erin have reconnected with her even moving in, much to the consternation of his mother, who just plain doesn’t like her. However, not even her love and encouragement may be enough to keep him from sliding into a pit of despair and self-destruction that, while eminently understandable, could prove to be even more destructive to him than the bomb that took his legs.

Although not necessarily a household name, except maybe in households where copies of “Cineaste” can be found on the coffee table, David Gordon Green has proven himself to be one of the best and most surprising filmmakers of the new millennium—his filmography covers everything from small-scale dramas like “George Washington,” “All the Real Girls” and “Joe” to broad comedies like “Pineapple Express” and “The Sitter” to the new entry in the “Halloween” franchise (not to mention the disastrous and still-bewildering sword-and-sorcery spoof “Your Highness,” a bafflement that I am still at a loss to explain or understand)—and this film is perhaps his most effective bridge to date between his independent films and the studio product that he has found himself doing from time to time. In terms of budget and star power, “Stronger” is clearly a studio-style film but it has the feel of one of his quieter indie efforts. Take, for example, the way in which the film handles both the bombing and the subsequent physical effects that it has on Jeff. A bigger film might have lingered extensively on the gross physical details of both, giving viewers a big buildup to a massive explosion followed by long and lingering glimpses of the remains of his legs so that we can fully revel in both the horror and the efforts of the visual effects department. Here, Green keeps the explosions and its immediate aftermath more or less in the background—when the bomb goes off, it is done in such a low-key manner that it actually provides more of a shock than if he had gone for a more conventionally suspenseful approach—and when his stumps are uncovered for the first time, the moment is staged so that the focus is more on the combination of disbelief and anguish that Jeff is undergoing than it is on the bloody wounds.

From those moments, it quickly becomes clear that “Stronger” is an inspirational drama that has been made by someone who is fully aware that such films tend to be more horseshit than honest in nature. Green and screenwriter John Pollono (working from Bauman’s own memoir) is more interested in the smaller details of Jeff’s day-to-day existence than in whatever feel-good qualities can be wrenched out of his story. Through their efforts, we are made to acutely feel the discomfort that Jeff feels, both from his physical predicament and his constant encounters with people who, while meaning well, cannot help but serve as a constant reminder of what he has lost. (Believe me, after seeing this film, you will no longer ever want to hear the phrase “Boston Strong” again.) And yet, even as Jeff runs the risk of letting the blackness completely overcome every aspect of his life and destroy his newfound relationship with Erin, the film doesn’t let him completely off the hook either—there are points where he does indeed act like a jerk to those around him and which are not sugarcoated in an artificial way to make him somehow come off better than he is acting. These moments are especially important because they not only serve to make his story more relatable but they give his eventual triumphs, as small-scale as they may otherwise seem in the grand scheme of things, a patina of genuine importance and accomplishment that they might have otherwise lacked. Green and Pollono has also made the smart decision to lace the story moments of welcome dark humor as well, such as a drunken late-night escapade with some friends at a playground or a moment when a couple who have asked for a selfie with him tell him that he is a symbol that terrorists can’t win and he remarks that he is also proof that they at least managed to put some points on the board.

Another thing working in the film’s favor are the two strong performances at its center. During his early scenes, Jake Gyllenhaal may come off a bit cringe-worthy—his accent and mannerisms make him seem as if he was auditioning to become a new Affleck brother—but once he finally settles down a bit, he turns in a terrific performance that might be the best thing he has done on film to date. Some have complained that this is a role that should have gone to a real-life amputee actor rather than utilize CGI technology to create the illusion of no legs on someone who has them but even those proponents would be hard-pressed to come away from this film with someone better in mind for the role. This is a part that covers the entire acting waterfront and not only does Gyllenhaal navigate all of the challenges beautifully, he never once succumbs to the desire to emotionally play to the cheap seats in the hopes of attracting award notice and succeeds in helping his character make the transition from extra-ordinary to extraordinary. Just as good is Tatiana Maslany as Erin, the girlfriend who loves Jeff and who feels no small amount of guilt for her unwitting contribution to his injuries but who will only put up with so much crap from hm before letting him have it. Some may have feared that Maslany would have trouble finding another role that would offer her even a fraction of the challenges she pulled off in her astounding work on “Orphan Black” but what she does here is almost as impressive—she takes a part that could have been that of just another blandly supportive girlfriend and makes it live and breathe in a fearsomely convincing manner.

“Stronger” is a really good, engaging and powerful film—so much, in fact, that it should by all rights end with an epilogue in which Mark Wahlberg and Peter Berg publicly apologize for “Patriots Day,” their unspeakably hollow and contrived take on the Boston Marathon bombing that was one of the very worst film to emerge last year. This is a film that may not exactly reinvent the wheel but it illustrates just how effective a seemingly familiar story like this can really be when it is placed in the right hands and dealt with using intelligence and emotional truths rather than cheap melodrama. Even if a film like this does not sound like your particular cup of tea, it is still worth checking out for the performances and Green’s deft handling of the material. Put it this way—“Stronger” is a film that is about as genuinely poignant and emotional as a film can possibly be while still centering around a character who is a Red Sox fan.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=31189&reviewer=389
originally posted: 09/21/17 10:18:33
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

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  22-Sep-2017 (R)
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