Many dramas about disability feature a wealthy and intelligent individual that, against all odds, lead good lives and/or change the world despite their disability. Whether it’s Stephen Hawking coming up with the Theory of Everything or Robin Cavendish improving the living conditions of severely disabled people (the subject of Andy Serkis’s directorial debut Breathe), fame and fortune is already theirs – and deservedly so. But the viewer is rarely offered an eloquent glimpse into how an ordinary person, weak or strong, deals with similar life-altering incidents. In an unpredictable step for comedy director David Gordon Green, Stronger tells the true story of Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) – a retail assistant from Boston who loses both his legs in the 2013 Boston bombings.
One wouldn’t be blamed for being sceptical about David Gordon Green being attached, considering his past in making comedies that are the lowest of the lowbrow (Your Highness, Pineapple Express…). Can he really contribute to a serious, human drama? But Green is full of surprises. John Pollono’s debut feature screenplay is natural and funny, and Green maintains its realism by not fetishising the emotions. There are no moments ripped out of the Book of Job, where Gyllenhaal shouts to God about why why why. Bauman is just a regular Joe from a regular family, trying to maintain his familial and romantic relationships despite his trauma.
There are few artificial moments, and the film sometimes feels like a blunt documentary (leaving Michael Brook’s romanticised score aside). Some sentimental annoyances slip through the barely noticed cracks, but come from a well-intentioned, truthful place. Gyllenhaal’s shattering performance flies from relaxed humour to unbearable fury, creating a permanent ambiguity with his character – is he a hero or not?
Stronger is the most legitimate disability drama in recent years. Despite the rare superficialities, there is a realism to the storytelling that’s both entertaining and devastating. Green doesn’t go over-the-top with real events, treating the bombings and Bauman’s recovery as they are and nothing more (albeit augmented by Sean Bobbitt’s dark and psychological cinematography). In many ways, this approach is more life-affirming. We can’t all formulate the universe or extend the lives of paraplegics, but Stronger reminds its audience that normal people can and do overcome the worst.
Stronger is released nationwide on 8th December 2017.
Watch the trailer for Stronger here: