David Gordon Green's output has been somewhat patchy for the best part of a decade, swinging from comedy stinkers such as Your Highness to engrossing character studies like Joe. Which makes it something of a surprise that Stronger proves itself to be such a well-made drama, despite its obvious Oscar-bait sensibilities. Green largely manages to avoid failing into cliché to bring Jeff Bauman's story to the screen, choosing not to emotionally manipulate his audience by using cheap tactics. Green's grounded direction along with fine performances by Jake Gyllenhaal, Miranda Richardson and Tatiana Maslany turn Stronger into a fine drama worthy of the praise it has garnered so far.
Bauman's autobiography of the same name is used as the basis to explore his life after a bomb explosion took away both of his legs while watching the Boston Marathon. Gyllenhaal has made it into a personal mission to disappear into character over the years, and while this doesn't require another dramatic physical transformation (CGI takes care of that), his performance is subtle enough to evoke the troubled spirit of a man dealing with a crisis few can understand. Green never shies away from revealing the ugly side of Bauman's personality as he struggles to come to terms with life without his legs. By taking the bumpy road towards recovery his fallibilities make the journey all the more meaningful and powerfully humane.
Born and bred in Boston, Bauman is a working class guy whose cheeky demeanour allows him to get away with more than most. His ex, Erin Hurley (Maslany), has had a little too much of his broken promises (a pattern that continues throughout the film) but he desperately wants another chance and despite her misgivings he vows to be waiting at the finishing line while she finishes her first marathon. As history tells us, it's a promise he did manage to keep and one that has probably rang through his mind ever since. Once he is hospitalised you might expect a formulaic by-the-numbers biopic to hit its markers like clockwork, but Green's take on events is thankfully more nuanced than that.
While Bauman is struggling to deal with what comes next, becoming a symbol of recovery for both his family and the city of Boston bears little relation to his own growing uncertainty. Viewed as a hero by almost everyone else, he sinks deeper into an alcoholic depression, descending into bar fights, drink driving and doing all he can to avoid the reality of his situation. His domineering mother Patty (magnificently played by Miranda Richardson) and caring but toxic family offer little comfort, and it's his on/off romance with Erin that characterises the heart of the film. Maslany adds the emotional beats to the story with a performance that reveals the peaks of her love for Jeff and the depths of how disappointing his failure to mature continues to be. Slight changes of expression and soulful stares say more about their relationship and her own internalised battle than any of the dialogue exchanged between the pair.
There are moments that play to the gallery once Stronger heads towards its conclusion but given everything that has come before these blips can be easily forgiven. Rather than focus on the physical journey towards recovery, Green emphasises the uglier side of the emotional aftermath Bauman had to find the strength to overcome. We’ve all heard the sweeping scores and seen the tear-filled eyes watching on as characters succeed against the odds, but rarely are we given a film ready to show us how brutally hard it can be to reach that point. A film like Stronger can only end up in the place you expect it to, but how it gets you there is what makes it worthwhile.