“Stronger”

 

            We still have a visceral reaction to the April 15, 2013 bombing at the Boston Marathon.  The true story of Jeff Bauman adds even more depth of emotion to an already heart-rending story.

            Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) is portrayed as a fairly ordinary guy, albeit a bit of a slacker.  He's 28 and still lives at home with his single Mother, Patty (Miranda Richardson), who isn't even all that nice to him.  She also drinks a lot, and doesn't seem to be gainfully employed.  Jeff has a job at the local Costco, in the deli, but where he's really at home is in the neighborhood pub, where he still hangs out with his old buddies and drinks beer and watches Red Sox games on the big screen (where there's a lot of shouting at the television).  Coarse language abounds, as well as high-volume arguments, but this sort of jaded rowdiness feels like home to everyone, so nobody's in a big hurry to change their lives or anything.  Which is probably why Jeff has broken up with his girlfriend at least three times.  Erin (Tatiana Maslany) works at the local hospital, runs marathons, and is currently on the “outs” with Jeff because, well, he's unreliable, and doesn't readily demonstrate that she's first in his life.  He still cares, though---enough to show up at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, just to hold up a homemade sign cheering her on.

            And then the bomb explodes.  The movie doesn't say anything about the bombers or who they were or where they came from or what their motives might have been---that's another story.  All Jeff knows is that both his legs were blown off.  And when he wakes up in the hospital, he still has the presence of mind to let the authorities know that he got a good look at a suspicious character near the bomb site.

            But now it's weeks afterward, the world has moved on, and Jake's still in a wheelchair.  He doesn't want to be considered a hero.  They can talk about “Boston Strong” and all that rah-rah stuff about not letting the terrorists win, but as far as he's concerned, the terrorists did win.  He's lost his legs.  And he's not going to get them back.  Jeff fights depression, and probably PTSD, though he's not officially diagnosed because he's not going to a counselor.  He moved back home with his Mom, who seems to be enjoying the vicarious celebrity status a little too much.  He's happy for Erin's decision to stick by him, and he's glad to spend time with her, but she's had to adjust her life to his schedule, and it's relentless.  She's exhausted.  And now she's wondering if she did the right thing by re-committing to him, when he doesn't seem to have much zeal to re-adjust and recover (overachieving was not part of his personality even before the blast).  She's also suffering from a bit of the survivor guilt, added to the guilt of knowing that she was the reason he was “in harm's way” in the first place.

            The tensions are evident:  between Patty and Erin, over who's the primary caretaker; between Jeff and his well-meaning, big, loud family, when a part of him just wants to be left alone, and between Erin and Jeff, as they try to navigate toward a future that looks much different than their past.  But we are rooting for Jeff Bauman to figure it all out, somehow because we want to believe that good things come out of bad circumstances.  Plus, the complexities of his character, and his relationships, adds some texture to a superficially predictable plot.

            Strong performances all around, but not fun to watch because the story is so painfully real. 

 

Questions for Discussion:

1)                  How has the reality of terrorism affected your life?

2)                  When have you had an on-again, off-again kind of relationship?

3)                  Why would terrorists decide to strike at the finish line of the Boston Marathon?

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DfW Film Critics Association