What is it with "based on a true story" movies set in Boston and directed by a man named David where a foul-mouthed matriarch, cigarette always in hand, emotionally manipulates her son despite the protestations of a supportive girlfriend? If you've seen one, you've seen 'em all.

I kid, of course; but there are similarities between David O. Russell's 2010 boxer biopic The Fighter and David Gordon Green's Stronger that are less-than-superficial. Sure, we've upgraded from Mark Wahlberg to Jake Gyllenhaal in the lead role (imagine taking your 1983 Cutlass to the shop and they loan you a brand new Chrysler) and made a lateral move from Amy Adams to Tatiana Maslany (I'm being generous to a fellow Canadian), but Stronger is still occasionally the kind of flatly polished prestige picture that mistakes "loud" for "meaningful". And, yes, there are Accents with a capital A.

The inspiration for the film is the memoir of Jeff Bauman, a man who lost both legs in the terror attack that took place near the finish line of the Boston Marathon in 2013. Bauman is played by Gyllenhaal, who immediately puts his charm to use constructing a lovable scamp, irresponsible and undependable but "He's Trying". He has been dumped several times by Erin (Maslany) and decides to wait for her at the end of the marathon to prove he can show up. The rest is, literally, history. The two leads capably shoulder the weight of the film and their performances remain mostly measured even as they slip in and out of melodramatic Oscar-bait screaming matches.

 Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany are left with much of the legwork in  Stronger.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany are left with much of the legwork in Stronger.


As a director, Green has historically been at his best when trafficking in the weird and intimate — films like Prince Avalanche and George Washington far outshine his broader, typically comedic, efforts. These instincts serve him well here even if they can't completely salvage the film. Moments of Jeff having the dressings changed on his wounds, trying to shower and use the toilet alone for the first time, and otherwise adapting to a brand new day-to-day play out with contemplative, quiet empathy. Green's outsider perspective also subtly turns a critical eye on the hashtag optimism that begat the film's title; you can almost feel the camera wince every time someone says "Boston Strong". Traces of trauma eventually fade away for a Hollywood ending, but for a while Bauman is styled as a draining battery, a vessel for everyone's needs with minimal regard for his own. The core of Stronger is not its inspirational parading, but in the idea that being a symbol of strength makes weakness inexcusable instead of inevitable. If only that message wasn't lost on the filmmakers.

Part of our AIFF 2017 Review Roundup.