Seldom has the idea that "It's in the telling" seemed more apt than as a description of "Stronger." On paper, this based-on-a-memoir story of tragedy overcome would seem to be the most obvious of Oscar bait, with Jake Gyllenhaal in the showy role of a terrorist victim fighting back from unthinkable physical and emotional challenges. But the story landed in good hands, under the direction of David Gordon Green ("Joe"), and the resulting film feels as if it single-handedly restores humanity to the movies.
Gyllenhaal plays Jeff Bauman, the 28-year-old Boston native who became a double amputee after terrorist bombs exploded along the sidelines of the 2013 Boston Marathon. Bauman was there to cheer on his on-again, off-again girlfriend Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany), a point that binds the two in grief and guilt, appreciation and resentment, but most powerfully by love. As in the Boston-adjacent, based-on-a-true-story "The Fighter," our hero is surrounded by a loud and tenacious family that offers its own brands of love, support and distraction, in this case with alcoholic matriarch Patty (Miranda Richardson) the lightning rod at its center.
It makes sense that first-time feature screenwriter John Pollono has a more extensive resume as an actor, because "Stronger" brims with moments built around human behavior. Of course, it also would have made sense had "Stronger" constantly chased pithy platitudes and big speeches, and one has to give the lion's share of credit to Green for establishing the right tone and nurturing potent performances. Early and often, "Stronger" catches one off guard with the characters' open-hearted gestures under duress, earning tears instead of jerking them.
The central love story -- described to Hurley as her "torrid melodrama with a chicken roaster with Costco" -- plumbs great depths of caring on the part of both Bauman and Hurley. Gyllenhaal's Bauman is a beautiful soul bloodied man who also is resilient in sense of humor and the will to recover. In the key supporting role, Maslany embodies searing, raw, roiling emotion and a kind of ideal of selfless love pushed to its limits. The film understandably ignores the pair's seeming unhappy ending, but any subsequent disappointment cannot invalidate the bravery of these characters: Bauman finding the courage to ask Hurley to be by his side at the Bruins' Stanley Cup bid, for example, or Hurley gently gripping Bauman's arm after taking the brunt of a PTSD rage.
As in the memoir on which the film is based, "Stronger" keeps circling back to that famous phrase "Boston Strong," its meaning, and how it gets tested. After all, Bauman finds himself in a bubble of self-knowing emotional fragility he must work to escape, even though it's easier to embrace cynicism or drink to distressing excess. Bauman rankles at being called a hero, but his story is that of a man cut off at the knees who relearns to stand on "his own two feet."