“Stronger,” which opens here on Friday, is a paradox: commercial entertainment that recreates the struggles of a trauma survivor while insisting that you and I will never fully understand what he went through to survive. It’s dedicated to the private experience within a very public tragedy, and as long as it’s doing that, the movie’s on solid ground. It’s only when the gaze widens that the problems begin.
Unlike last year’s “Patriots Day” — and better for it — the focus is on one individual rather than an entire city (starring Mark Wahlberg). Jeff Bauman was in the crowd watching the Boston Marathon on Boylston Street when the first pressure-cooker bomb went off on April 15, 2013. There to cheer for his on-again-off-again girlfriend, Erin Hurley, Bauman had both his legs shattered by the blast; he’s the victim being helped by Carlos Arredondo, “the man in the cowboy hat,” in one of the attack’s most iconic images.
“Stronger” is less about event than aftermath; the screenplay by John Pollono, based on the 2014 book by Bauman and Bret Witter, treats the bombing as a blank spot in the film’s consciousness that only gradually gets filled in by flashbacks. It’s an effective conceit that puts the focus on an ordinary guy coping with a life that has suddenly become horribly unique. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Bauman, and it’s a good choice; the actor can be mightily eccentric when the role calls for it, but here he dials it down and creates a gangly, affable overgrown kid, a chicken-roaster for Costco who hasn’t moved out of his mother’s house, literally or emotionally.
Gyllenhaal’s excellent, but, playing his girlfriend, Tatiana Maslany (star of TV’s “Orphan Black”) is something special. It’s through Erin that we watch Bauman’s medical and psychological battles in the first weeks after the bombing, and Maslany has a still, empathetic presence that can bring tears to your eyes — she’s the movie’s soul. (Bauman and Hurley eventually married and had a child, which we’re told, and are now divorcing, which we’re not.)
Every movie needs its conflict, though, and in “Stronger” that’s the growing gulf between Bauman and his family, who are presented as a squabbling, dysfunctional clan from Chelmsford who can’t understand why Jeff won’t accept or profit from his mantle as a hero. Full of “haht,” they’re a cringe-inducing albatross around his and the movie’s neck. The elegant British actress Miranda Richardson lets her hair down to play Jeff’s blowzy Ma; Clancy Brown is a gruff, estranged dad who’s always running his mouth; and comic and local legend Lenny Clarke is on hand for extra Boston-movie bona fides.
He’s fine. They’re all fine. And it’s interesting and good that “Stronger” fights upstream against the easy inspirational uplift that can swamp our attempts to come to grips with tragedy. The implication of the title (one of them, anyway) is that Jeff Bauman had to be stronger than a trite, necessary public slogan like “Boston Strong” to come out the other side. That offers of appearances on “Oprah” and chances to throw out the opening pitch at Fenway were mostly for us, for our sense of normality, rather than for him. That no one who is called a hero ever really feels like one and that the ones doing the calling never fully understand this.
But by using Bauman’s relatives to personify the tension and by loading that family with every beeah-swilling, Sawx-loving, F-bomb dropping “yo, bro” cliché in the book, director David Gordon Green overplays his hand. Clichés exist for a reason, obviously, and Jeff Bauman’s family and friends probably do, in fact, talk like this. But fidelity isn’t the issue here — emphasis is. We’re much more than the sum of our accents and team jerseys in Massachusetts, even as filmmakers from away, seeking narrative shortcuts, serve up our most reductive parts and call it authenticity. Two decades ago, with “Good Will Hunting,” this seemed like a novelty. In “Stronger,” it plays as self-parody.
Does the movie’s Bauman family have to be two-dimensional to allow Jeff’s processing of trauma to take on three-dimensional shape? You could argue that the movie will play better outside New England, since it’ll dovetail with how other parts of the country see us rather than how we see ourselves. In any event, “Stronger” eventually folds its hand and indulges in the cathartic, sentimental public healing it has mostly resisted up until then.
Those final sequences are moving but mawkish; more emotionally real is the penultimate scene in which Bauman meets the man who saved his life, Arredondo (Carlos Sanz), in a hushed rapprochement between two people who have shared a moment the rest of us will never penetrate.
Here and in the scenes with Maslany’s Erin, “Stronger” comes into focus in intimate close-up. The rest gets lost in the crowd.