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An inspirational drama based on a true story in which the main character is disabled. Based on that description, it’s easy to dismiss Stronger as yet another in a long line of Oscar-bait movies, which would be a huge mistake. Yes, Stronger definitely has some familiar beats – but it also subverts quite a few biopic cliches and benefits greatly from fantastic performances by Jake Gyllenhaal and Orphan Black‘s Tatiana Maslany.
Gyllenhaal stars as Jeff Bauman, an ordinary man who was a member of the crowd during the 2013 Boston Marathon and lost both his legs because of the bombing. When he wakes up in the hospital, he recalls that he saw the bomber and relays that to the authorities. He’s quickly hailed as a hero and a symbol of Boston strength in the face of adversity.
While Jeff certainly handles himself admirably (his initial response to the news is to jokingly compare himself to Lieutenant Dan from Forrest Gump), it’s clear that the experience and his disability are taking their toll. He is strong, but not as strong as his family, friends and the people of Boston practically demand him to be. The weight of having those expectations thrust onto him makes things worse.
It’s an interesting take on the story that complicates the traditional inspirational narrative and breaks up the cliches a bit. There’s even something slightly meta about the movie’s approach to unreasonable expectations of heroism – where do we get those if not from the media and Oscar-bait movies? Jeff isn’t ready to wave flags at huge sports events or be interviewed by Oprah, but he is expected to do it anyway. After all, he’s Boston Strong.
Gyllenhaal is superb in the lead. The challenging physicality of the role is one thing, but where his performance truly shines is in its emotional complexity. He keeps Jeff’s pain visible but quietly locked away behind a brave face. The simple brilliance of the way he gives a thumbs up with a slightly pained smile is amazing.
Tatiana Maslany also gives a fantastic performance as Jeff’s on-and-off again girlfriend Erin. She’s dedicated and extremely supportive, but not without her limits – and as Jeff spirals and puts more and more pressure on her to keep him going, she begins to crack. Maslany hits the right balance between the character’s love for Jeff and her growing frustration and desperation.
One of the movie’s most powerful scenes involves Jeff and Erin hitting their respective breaking points and lashing out at each other. It’s a raw, heartbreaking scene and a highlight for what are already great performances.
The familiar trappings of Oscar-bait dramas are still present, from the superficial (the movie ends with footage of the real people and a brief description of their lives in the following years) to the more meaningful stuff (overall story direction and resolution). It’s difficult to blame Stronger for this – it offers a very good telling of a type of story that just happens to have been told far too often. Yet, even when it’s being clever and subversive, it’s hard not to be cynical and look at it as a way to score Award season points.
The real shame of Oscar-bait is not the bad movies, but the shadow that its overused tropes cast on the good ones. Stronger is a prime example – a very good movie that suffers because of the wider context of its very genre.