It’s festival season! The FilmSoc blog is covering the BFI’s 61st London Film Festival (4-15 October), diving into the myriad of films and events on offer to deliver reviews.
Calvin Law takes a look at David Gordon Green’s drama based on a real life recovery tale.
Since his terrific performance in Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal’s career has followed an interesting trajectory. Always intriguing and unpredictable in his choice of roles and films, he’s taken it up a notch in recent years, dabbling in all sorts of genres in both leading and supporting turns. These efforts have had mixed results: his Raging Bull-esque transformation in Southpaw and depiction of a grieving misanthropist in Demolition were admirable efforts in deeply flawed films, while his problematic work in the Nocturnal Animals and his daring performance as a gratingly insane mad scientist in Okja were, for your humble reviewer, some of his least impressive performances to date.
With Stronger, Gyllenhaal delivers his most naturalistic, understated performance in quite some time. He stars as Boston Marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman, who lost both his legs above the knee to the 2013 terror bombings. It’s his best work since the iconic Lou Bloom of Nightcrawler. And Stronger has much to recommend it beyond an acting showcase for its leading man. Though largely sticking to the expected ‘inspirational biopic’ beats, director David Gordon Green tinkers with this formula just enough to make it stand out as a particularly affecting and sensitively-made film.
Based upon Mr Bauman’s autobiography, Gyllenhaal presents our protagonist as an irresponsible but likeable-enough Bostonian who works at Cosco, has a nice rapport with his boisterous family (including Miranda Richardson and Clancy Brown as his parents), loves his local baseball and hockey teams the Red Sox and Bruins, and is trying to prove his worth to ex-girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany). This leads an eager-to-please Jeff to cheer for a competing Erin at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, where he briefly sees one of the bombers who causes the explosion that costs him his legs. As we watch his coarse but deeply caring family lash out at Jeff’s well-intentioned boss, and a guilt-stricken Erin tearfully walking along the hospital corridors, we get an unglamorous, ugly portrayal of the fallout from tragedy. The film doesn’t shy away from the brutal pain Jeff endures both physically and mentally – a scene involving the removal of bandages from his stumps, the subtle framing and camerawork focusing on Gyllenhaal’s expressive eyes, forms a particularly haunting sequence. The unfussy yet heartfelt fashion in which the film depicts these initial struggles of Jeff and his loved ones adapting to their new situation are among the highlights of the film; and screenwriter John Pollono avoids putting the audience through the emotional wringer, lacing the hardships with wisecracks from Jeff about his condition, and a heartfelt connection between Jeff and Erin.
The relationship between Jeff and Erin is one of the most essential elements of the film. Though the story course is somewhat predictable, it always feels organic and integral to the central theme of healing and rehabilitation. Maslany, someone I’m very eager to see more of based on this, is great in a role that requires she carefully tread the line between being a source of comfort and a source of motivation to get Jess out of his slump. It’s a tricky balancing act, but she succeeds completely, and enlivens any scene she’s in with her encouragement. Gyllenhaal, so effective in conveying the physical strain of his character’s struggle, is brilliant at showing how this aimless young man’s frustrations and breakthroughs weigh on him. The film handles the dynamic of a couple struggling to re-adapt new circumstances far more effectively than, say, The Theory of Everything by refusing to brush over the main character’s own flaws and self-imposed hindrances. They’re sweet and endearing as a couple, but the cracks in the relationship are equally well-developed, and you really get a feel for what both characters are going through times both good and bad.
Elsewhere, the film focuses more directly on Jeff’s process of recovering and assimilating into his new living situation. Green does his best to step away from most of the cliches of the usual story beats, but can’t quite escape from slightly hokey moments involving Jeff’s family members as comic relief characters. The pratfalls of his booze-loving, extremely loyal family are funny at times, but can become too overt and clash with the more understated humour elsewhere. Nothing against the supporting cast themselves, though, who do uniformly solid work, and Miranda Richardson gives an admirable performance as a mother struggling with her son’s condition in her own flawed but loving sort of way, even if a few of her drunk scenes are a tad overplayed. It’s telling that the film’s strongest sequences in showing Jeff’s journey towards learning to walk again are often the most underplayed scenes, by both the direction and Gyllenhaal’s performance.
Green is an interesting choice to helm this story, of an American hero who most of the time, wants very little to do with his own “heroism”, for every wave of glory and praise reminds him of the terrible day. Having helmed the very low-key character study Joe several years back, Green seems to have retained that knack for conveying character in small unique ways. There are bigger moments, of course – two appearances by Jeff at sporting events provide a well-executed contrast in his gradual arc of self-acceptance – but some of the most memorable sequences in the film are the small, intimate scenes, whether its Erin sadly looking over Jeff’s sock drawer, or Jeff holding a surprisingly poignant conversation with his rescuer Carlos (a moving Carlos Sanz).
Come awards season, look to Stronger making a strong push for the acting categories; having gotten strong notices across various family festivals, Gyllenhaal and Maslany seem to be strong contenders for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress, with the former in particular looking primed to follow up with his first Oscar nomination since 2005’s Brokeback Mountain. Don’t expect the film to get too much attention elsewhere – though the technical elements are all very well-done, the editing in particular helping to create a vivid sense of Jeff’s mindset, and one cannot fault the subtle special effects and makeup work. But none of these stand out as much as the acting, while Green’s direction and Pollono’s script may be a bit too unassuming for the Academy’s taste. They all contribute, however, to one of the most pleasant surprises of the year so far: a film both funny and moving that manages to subvert some of the trappings of its genre, and executes well-worn story beats immaculately.
Stronger premieres nationally at London Film Festival on October 5th. It is set to hit UK cinemas on the 8th of December. Trailer below: