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London Film Festival Review: Stronger – “One man’s experience of triumph over adversity”

Boston. Home of a much-mimicked accent, the ducks, major sports teams and the place where everybody knows your name. It is a city that has been immortalised on film many times, inspiring a devotion to its working-class roots not generally found elsewhere. Alas, it is more recently infamous for being the site of a terrorist attack during its annual Marathon. Stronger is a story unique to this city and people that resonates around the world.

The city looms large throughout David Gordon Green’s movie as almost as if he were a native (he was born in Arkansas and went to college in Texas), however, Stronger is purportedly Jeff Bauman’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) story. Jeff is an average joe who took much of the bomb’s impact and survived, after having both legs amputated below the knee. Stronger follows Jeff’s rehabilitation and centres around the relationships he has, many fractured even before the bombing, which all must adapt in the aftermath of his injuries. The film borrows from the real Bauman’s successful memoir, then DGG ladles over thick, heart-wrenching moments as if they were a bitter syrup. Although the film is demonstrably from Jeff’s first-person viewpoint, DGG carefully establishes the characters of Jeff’s mother Patty (Miranda Richardson) and his on-off girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany).

Neither a picture-perfect fairytale nor an angry drama, at its heart Stronger is one man’s experience of triumph over adversity, with DGG almost too careful not to heroise Jeff. The camerawork gives the feel of an extended episode of ER, from the size of Patty’s flat, to Jeff’s exhaustion and the drinking, swearing Boston family life of which he is now the epicentre. Comedic moments are also carefully placed, serving to help raise the film out of melodrama and as a consequence, reinforce the notion that Bauman is only an inadvertent celebrity.

The picture of the real-life events that started it all.

It is a shame that more time wasn’t spent developing Carlos Arredondo’s backstory, the cowboy-hatted stranger who is first to rescue Jeff has lived a fascinating life. The one major scene between actor Carlos Sanz and Gyllenhaal was the film’s most moving. Miranda Richardson also makes a welcome return to the big screen. Patty is a fun, dirty broad with a blinding acceptance of her son. The scenes between her and Maslany are wincingly natural and compassionate.

And, of course, Gyllenhaal is great. The problem is that with performances like Nightcrawler under his belt, a story of the everyday feels somewhat inappropriate. Gyllenhaal expertly conveys Bauman’s pain and maybe does a little too well showing his desperation and cruelty, in a role that Gyllenhaal obviously relished playing. Perhaps it is the material that needs to be better to match the actor.

It’s worth noting that this is not the first film to be made about the Boston bombing. Patriots Day, made a year earlier, was a very different vehicle, Mark Wahlberg leaning into the hero angle, which perhaps is why DGG decided to focus on telling an everyman story. Stronger sees Bauman as an almost Post-Trumpian inspirational figure, full of human frailty, influencing others simply by continuing to survive after tragedy. Bauman personifies the human spirit and not human perfection, enabling Stronger to deliver its message using the Rocky/The Wrestler school of filmmaking.

Stronger asks viewers to believe in being ‘Boston Strong’, but it best delivers when moving away from the setting, and focusing on a story of the uniting power of family in the wake of terrorism.

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