“Stronger” is a movie you need to see, no matter how much you think you don’t need to see it. It’s Jake Gyllenhaal’s finest, truest performance.
The subject is Jeff Bauman (Gyllenhaal), one of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing victims. A Costco deli employee, Bauman was near the finish line to cheer on his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany). After the smoke cleared from the explosions, Bauman was alive, but his injuries required a double above-the-knee amputation. His rehabilitation, his relationships, his drinking (he’s now sober), his mixed pride and discomfort regarding his symbolic value as the emblem of “Boston Strong” — this is a lot for one movie to cover, but it does so beautifully.
Early scenes with Bauman’s boisterous, boozy family, crammed into a small apartment, evoke a great deal in a few quick strokes. Bauman is a sweet-natured carousing townie who hasn’t grown up yet. Hurley is his tough, loving but wary partner, wondering whether she should get used to on-again, off-again.
The bombing changes everything. Most of “Stronger” deals with the aftermath. In his months of rehab, “Stronger” honors the struggle with little things adding up to big ones. Hurley moves in with him, in that cramped apartment, which seems all the smaller with Miranda Richardson’s slightly overripe performance as Bauman’s domineering mother.
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Director Gordon Green’s movie is an ode to familial and community support, but it’s not blind to the way some people exploited or explained Bauman’s ordeal.
At one point, Bauman is joined at the bar by a couple thanking him for “not letting the terrorists win.” Gyllenhaal’s complex, painful response paves the way for a later scene in which Bauman and company, again at a bar, are confronted by drunks offering their theory that the marathon bombing was an Obama conspiracy.
Two sequences ensure that tears will be shed at every screening of “Stronger”: Bauman’s reunion with the man who saved his life, and the scene of Bauman throwing the first pitch at Fenway.
One surprise of “Stronger” is how much humor becomes a part of Bauman’s coping. Just about everything works in “Stronger.” And it has been many months since anyone could say that about a straight-ahead, meat-and-potatoes biopic.
Rated R for language throughout, some graphic injury images, and brief sexuality/nudity. 1:56. Fayette