Updated: Wednesday, September 20, 2017, 12:56 PM
Throughout my neighborhood, people have put up signs saying “Hate has no home here,” but I have refrained.
Because the truth is I have a small room in the back where I keep deeply uncharitable feelings for Tom Brady.
Also Danny Ainge, and the Celtics in general.
Even with those biases in play, though, I admit to being moved by events depicted in Stronger, a Boston-drenched biopic about Jeff Bauman, the Chelmsford man and Sox fan who had his legs blown off at the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.
The attack, his wounds, and his subsequent recovery elevated Bauman to hero status — a role he did not want, and for which he was ill-suited. The public craved a man who Bauman wasn’t ready to become, a conflict that forms the basis of this unusual, effective treatment of what could have been formulaic material, elevated by the performances of its two leads.
The role of Bauman goes to Jake Gyllenhaal, an actor whose own uneasy relationship with leading-man roles makes him an interesting choice here. Gyllenhaal, who seemed lost in big-studio spectacles like Day After Tomorrow and Prince of Persia, but fully engaged in offbeat fare like Nightcrawler, brings an intuitive understanding to Bauman.
In a prologue set in the days before the attack, the actor gives us glimpse of the shy, awkward, unreliable guy about to be blinded by the spotlight — screwing up at work, running into an ex-girlfriend Erin (Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany) who’s just dumped him for too often “not showing up.”
But when Erin runs in the marathon to raise money for a hospital (she’s that kind of woman), he shows up on race day, to be there at the finish line for support — a gesture that haunts Erin when he’s wounded, and leaves her with conflicting emotions. Erin sees that the needs associated with his recovery and rehab are staggering. She also sees that Bauman, in the aftermath, can summon neither the willpower nor the family support necessary to succeed.
His blue-collar family (he still lives with his single mom, played by Miranda Richardson) is deeply dysfunctional, probably alcoholic (at least as depicted here, somewhat grotesquely), and unlikely to handle the obligations brought on by his complex recovery. And there are additional problems. This is a media age, and Bauman also needs a de facto press agent — Jeff’s in demand at hockey and baseball games (the Phillies make a cameo appearance as Bauman throws out the first pitch at a Red Sox game a month after the attack). Erin sees that if she does not protect Bauman during this process, no one will. So she accepts responsibility for all of it, an act of compassion and warmth that inevitably rekindles their romantic relationship.
Maslany is first-rate in this role. Her character has genuine feelings for Bauman, but she shows us there is more going on here — Erin re-enters his life because she knows it’s the best thing for him, that his pills and PTSD are getting in the way of his recovery, that here is a deficit of determination that only she is in a position to fill.
We sense that Erin will always give more than she gets from the relationship, that she knows this, that she proceeds anyway. The trick for Maslany is to map this imbalance not as a masochistic flaw, but as strength of character, which she does.
Gyllenhaal, meanwhile, presents Bauman’s disintegration and recidivist setbacks with a grisly candor (it’s not his fault the movie’s chronology is a little vague), building toward the improbably moving scene in which he finally gains helpful perspective on his situation — a coffee-shop reunion with the man (Carlos Sanz) who saved his life, and who has his own harrowing story to tell.
Bauman’s insight: Maybe he isn’t a hero. Maybe pretending to be one, for the sake of others, is heroic enough.
MOVIES Stronger Directed by David Gordon Green. With Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson, and Carlos Sanz. Distributed by Lionsgate.
Running time: 1 hour, 59 mins.
Parents guide: R (language, sexuality)
Playing at: Area theaters