Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Sep 22, 2017 10:55 am 
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Being a role model when survival is enough

The eclectic David Gordon Green swerves in yet another direction with Stronger, his new film about Jeff Bauman, the young man who lost both legs in the Boston Marathon bombings, adapted by John Pollono from Bauman's book penned with Bret Witter about his experiences. This is a quietly disconcerting movie that takes us up close and intense into tough, intimate details of an experience rougher than most of us can imagine.It must ultimately be seen as the story of the heroism of a common man. But what's remarkable about it is how at any given point it subtly defies convention and goes a step further.

Basically, Jeff isn't a hero. He's an ordinary, seriously flawed young man who becomes a symbol, "Boston Strong," who has heroism thrust upon him. Along the way, there are magnificent performances, especially by Jake Gyllenhaal as Jeff, Miranda Richardson as Patty Bauman, his mother, and Tatiana Maslany (known for the TV series "Orphan Black") as Jeff's girlfriend, Erin Hurley. And all the real stuff is messy, and great in ways that provide a texture of satisfaction.

There are some flaws. Even if it's properly meant to be mess, the action could have used more order as narrative, and the picture doesn't know well enough how to end. Gyllenhaal, who's 36, is old for the role of the 27-year-old Bauman. But these minuses can be forgiven because of the film's original slant and the high quality of its acting.

To begin with though the bombings event is there, including a mercifully brief, hellish late flashback recreation of the explosion with Jeff at the center of it, Stronger goes light on details of the larger event, the hunt for the perpetrators, and the media coverage, because it's about the point of view of Jeff Bauman, and he has little time for those things. But when the bandages are first taken off Jeff's amputated stumps, we're there. His physical experience, we follow closely. We see him slip or topple over painfully more than once, have sex, even crawl on a street - brutal, humble, excruciatingly difficult moments a movie just about heroism in the face of disability, more focused on uplift and less on the intense physical details, might leave out. Jake Gyllenhaal lives through it for us, in a performance likely to draw an Oscar nomination.

If we don't know about Jeff but have seen Jake Gyllenhaal plenty, we might expect a story of bravery and courage, but from the start we learn it's more complicated. Jeff seems an unadventurous, goofy guy, with a mediocre food industry job at a Costco deli. He always relaxes at the same noisy local sports bar. He belongs to a loud, drunken working class Boston area family sort of like the uproarious brood of David O. Russell's The Fighter. Erin, the girlfriend, says Jeff never shows up. At the time of the bombings, she's just broken up with him for the third time for this reason. Ironically, this time he does show up, at the finish line, with a big handmade sign, for her first Boston Marathon. She hears the explosions and stops a mile away. Jeff is right next to the younger brother of the two bombers. And he helps identify him. He quickly becomes identified himself as a hero - a role he has difficulty living up to, since simply dealing with what has happened to him is overwhelming to him.

What happens in Stronger isn't "interesting" except for two big sporting events where Jeff is put on display, particularly the second one, and when he meets "the man with the cowboy hat," Costa Rican Carlos Arredondo (Carlos Sanz), who was the first to tend to him and saved his life. Those are moments when Jeff gets pulled up, when he's called upon to rise to the occasion. But what really counts and makes this movie different are the many times we're just following Jeff in the struggle with losing his legs, and we can't say if he's winning or losing the battle physically and psychologically.

Jeff's gay boss is great, and makes sure they know his benefits are great: but what stands out is how the family members are all screaming at the boss and at each other when the boss comes with that important revelation.

A lot of the action is a mishmash of therapy, rehab - and life out of control. The rapprochement between Erin and Jeff is uneasy (although their love gradually grows). Jeff's drunken mother is controlling. She's also excited by the fame of "Boston Strong," the glitter of her son's new image as a brave survivor. He is fed up with it, sick of being "reminded of the worst day of my life." Jeff frequently loses focus and loses hope along the way and often drinks, even getting wasted with his mother.

Jeff lives with his mother, in small quarters. As in Kumail Nanjiani's story The Big Sick, this is a case of a separated couple who're brought back together by a medical crisis. Erin comes to Jeff in the hospital, and elects to quit her job and move in with him and his mom to help him. But in the close quarters Patty and Erin are in each other's faces. There is another breakup, and a pregnancy. What happens? Do they live happily ever after? We don't know, though we doubt it. But when Jeff meets Carlos, and after the Red Sox opening pitch finds out how much his survival has meant to so many people, he gains strength in his ability to give strength. So yes, there is uplift, but it's the mess that we remember, gratefully.

Stronger, 116 mins., debuted at Toronto, and opened in the US 22 Sept 2017.

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