Boston or Chicago, Kansas City or Sacramento, big city or small town, everyone knows a Jeff Bauman.
Or two. Or seven.
When we meet Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jeff at the outset of “Stronger,” he’s in his late 20s but still living in a cramped two-bedroom apartment with his “Ma.”
Jeff’s kind of a harmless minor screw-up. He’s a good-natured, good-looking guy with a mop of unruly hair, a crooked smile and a talent for charming his way out of trouble when he messes up on the job at Costco.
He loves his beer and his buddies and his Red Sox. He loves his on-and-off girlfriend as well, but she’s broken up with him three times because he never shows up for anything and she can’t get him off the couch most days.
An ordinary guy with an ordinary life — until early afternoon on April 15, 2013, when Jeff was standing near the finish line of the Boston Marathon to cheer on (and hopefully win back) his ex, and a bomb exploded almost directly underneath him, and the injuries to his lower extremities were so severe doctors had to amputate both legs above the knee.
Director David Gordon Green’s “Stronger” is the dramatization of Jeff’s story. It is a straightforward and of course inspirational and at times profoundly moving tale, and even though we can predict just about every note it will strike before the opening credits roll, Green and screenwriter John Pollono and the outstanding cast elevate the material and make it something special and memorable.
Sure, we get scenes where Jeff is overcome by physical pain and psychological trauma, and scenes where he drinks himself into a stupor and skips his rehab sessions, and scenes in which he literally picks himself up and resumes his quest to one day walk again. All done by the book, and all executed quite well.
What makes “Stronger” stand out is the pitch-perfect feel for the dynamic of a loud and constantly bickering and dysfunctional but fiercely loyal and loving extended family, and the nuances of a loving relationship between two people who should spend the rest of their lives together if one of them doesn’t chuck it all away out of stupidity and stubbornness — and almost unbearable pressure put on Jeff by a city and a country that labeled him a hero and made him the symbol of “Boston Strong” without bothering to ask if he wanted to wear that crown.
“Oprah is coming to town!” Jeff’s mother announces triumphantly at a family barbecue. “She’s going to interview Jeff the day after tomorrow.”
The look on Jeff’s face is one of absolute terror.
Jake Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of Jeff is a finely calibrated performance — one of the best of his career and deserving of nomination talk. He dives into the Boston accent and wears it well. Even though Gyllenhaal is a bona fide movie star, we believe him when he’s taking out the trash at Costco, we believe him when he’s getting stupid drunk with his friends, we believe him when he lashes out at his girlfriend, his mother, the world. It’s brilliant work.
Tatiana Maslany (“Orphan Black”) as Erin has the obligatory Long-Suffering Girlfriend role and at times she’s almost TOO saintly — but when Erin finally explodes at Jeff when Jeff disappoints her once again and literally leaves him stranded and helpless, her furious coldness humanizes her. In that moment, Maslany actually makes us more sympathetic to Erin. We already know she’s a wonderful person with tons of heart. It’s a relief to see can dish it out as well as she can take it.
Also sure to attract awards buzz is Miranda Richardson’s work as Jeff’s hard-drinking, tough-talking, overly protective mother. As written and as played by Richardson, it’s the stuff of best supporting actress victories. Richardson has ample opportunities to hit big and bold notes. Mom drinks hard and laughs loud and never shies away from confrontation — and though she clearly loves Jeff with all her heart, she’s perhaps just a little bit too eager to explore all the opportunities coming Jeff’s way now that he’s a “hero,” as she keeps calling him.
How am I a hero because I happened to be standing next to a bomb, Jeff wonders more than once.
When the answer to that question finally presents itself, it’s a moment of clarity for Jeff — and his reaction to that revelation is indeed heroic.
Roadside Attractions presents a film directed by David Gordon Green and written by John Pollono, based on the book by Jeff Bauman and Bret Witter. Rated R (for language throughout, some graphic injury images, and brief sexuality/nudity). Running time: 119 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.