Standing Tall - Stronger
When a movie like this comes along, I inevitably have two questions. Is it a worthwhile effort at what it tries to achieve? And is what it tries to achieve a worthwhile effort? If you're going to snatch a story out of the headlines and commit to putting it on film, it feels like there's a responsibility to at least ask whether the story deserves to be told. My immediate response to this synopsis would have been no. As a story that's as much happenstance as anything else, it doesn't feel like there's anything remarkable enough about it to pick it from a myriad of stories involving people overcoming the loss of the limb. But somewhere in Gyllenhaal's performance, I was won over. Whether it is the wry sense of humor or Bauman's own questioning of why his story matters, I started to get it. This story is not important for what it meant to the life of Bauman; it is important for what it meant to the life of a city.
Stronger tells the story of Jeff Bauman (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), a Boston resident who was injured when the bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon in 2013. He was there cheering on his sometimes girlfriend, Erin (played by Tatiana Maslany), when the explosion cost him both legs. The film follows his journey through recovery, learning to walk, family struggles and wrestling with the notoriety that came with being a symbol of the attack. Once his name and image were synonymous with "Boston Strong," he struggled to maintain his grip on normalcy. We see him wave the flag at a Boston Bruins game and throw out the first pitch at a Red Sox game. This is all set against the background of him trying to adjust to his new normal.
Boston is one of those places with a strong collective identity, and that identity is only magnified when it comes to sports. From the bar scene, to local broadcasts, Stronger paints a picture of a unified city in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing. Throughout, Jeff constantly asks why his story matters at all, which is a redeeming quality in a movie that just barely justifies its own existence. As he is paraded in front of cheering fans and adoring crowds, he slowly comes to the realization that his story matters because of how it makes people feel. The film gets this note right even though it's definitely not obvious. There is a worse version of this movie where Jeff is imbued with the same hero ethos without any of the self-awareness. Thankfully, this movie steers clear of that lane. This is a rightfully messy story.
The film is filled with complicated family dynamics that deepen what might otherwise be a fairly conventional story. Gyllenhaal and Maslany's on-screen relationship winds up being frought with pressures from all sides and their performances give real teeth to the idea of overcoming it all. In the hands of less capable actors, this material would have almost certainly fell flat and the ever-changing story around them would have been a lot less compelling.
Though the final product is fairly conventional, credit the filmmakers for making something out of nothing. What could have been a blandly inspirational story about overcoming and persevering winds up being just strong enough to recommend. I wouldn't go in expecting a life changing experience, but it definitely stands on it own merit.
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