Rated R, 120 minutes
The superbly-acted, affecting and compelling new drama "Stronger" tells the remarkable true story of Jeff Bauman, who tragically lost both legs as a spectator during the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. The Oscar-worthy film transcends the usual cliches of inspirational stories by focusing on the humanity of the story, and not just the grit to overcome the usual handicaps.
Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) loses both of his legs when two bombs explode during the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. After regaining consciousness in the hospital, Jeff is able to help law enforcement identify one of the suspects, but his own battle is just beginning. With unwavering support from his family, including his strong-willed mother (Miranda Richardson) and girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany), Bauman embarks on a long and heroic journey to physical and emotional rehabilitation.
The engaging, touching "Stronger" is directed by "Pineapple Express'" David Gordon and is written by John Pollono, based on Bauman's memoir of the same name. Films such as this (and we're looking at you, Disney), tend to take an oversentimental approach to things like this, but this warts-and-all view of Bauman's life - he was a flawed, normal human being before and after his tragedy - gives some heavy doses of reality that add some heft to what could've gone maudlin really, really quickly.
It also helps having Oscar-nominee Gyllenhaal, in a terrific turn that is easily one of his best to date, as Bauman, not to mention a stellar supporting cast that includes a solid turn from Emmy-winner Tatiana Maslany of "Orphan Black" fame as his girlfriend, and the excellent Oscar-nominee and British character actress Richardson, memorably stealing scenes as Jeff's blowsy, talkative mother. Richardson has one of the film's many compelling moments: watch her face literally sink she sees her son in the hospital for the first time following the bombing.
Gyllenhaal has his share of gritty scenes too, and through some heavy doses of cinematic magic, we see him without legs or his prosthetic ones, but the effects are seamless and masterfully done. Gyllenhaal captures Bauman at his best and worst, through pain and triumph, but also as a normal guy cast into the limelight by insurmountable tragedy. Though it occasionally manipulates and feels redundant in its last act, it's remarkably unsentimental, and even occasionally funny, usually by Bauman's rowdy family and friends.
If "Stronger" doesn't grab you in the first few moments, give it time. If you aren't moved after Bauman meets Carlos Arredondo (Carlos Sanz) late in the film, the guy in the cowboy hat who saved him on that terrible day, then something may be wrong with you, especially after you learn why the anti-war activist was there in the first place.
There's no doubt about: the worthy "Stronger" is a tear-jerker and it earns those tears, yet its title may also refer to having a healthy dose of tissues handy, as you'll need them throughout. Though it's very early to say, I wouldn't be surprised for accolades for Gyllenhaal and Richardson for their roles. One of the year's best films.