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Stronger is a tear-jerking movie that actually earns your tears

There’s one big reason this film — where Jake Gyllenhaal plays a Boston Marathon bombing victim — works so well.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays real-life Boston Marathon bombing victim Jeff Bauman, while Tatiana Maslany plays his girlfriend, Erin.
Roadside Attractions
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Not another inspirational true-life story, you might be forgiven for thinking when considering the new movie Stronger, about Jeff Bauman, who lost both his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing and identified suspects (later revealed to be the Tsarnaev brothers) to authorities.

The “inspirational true-life story” has become a bit of a picked-on genre in recent years, thanks to how many mediocre or even outright bad versions lean heavily on the schmaltz and sentimentality in hopes of winning Oscar gold. Think, for instance, of 2015’s Jennifer Lawrence vehicle Joy, which had all sorts of problems, but first and foremost an inability to tell the “normal woman triumphs over adversity to win her fortune” story in a way that earned its (would be) soaring climax.

Plus, Stronger hails from director David Gordon Green, whose work is often great but is, to put it kindly, hit-or-miss over the last few years. (His 2015 Oscar bid, Our Brand Is Crisis, sank without a trace for good reason.) Its star, Jake Gyllenhaal, can give performances that range from magnetic to misguided. And female lead Tatiana Maslany is terrific on TV’s Orphan Black but has never had a film role of this stature.

But fortunately, almost everything in Stronger works really well. Yes, it follows the inspirational true-life story format almost chapter and verse, right down to the part where Gyllenhaal breaks down weeping about how he can’t do it anymore. And yes, I could quibble with a few choices here and there, particularly when it comes to the movie’s score and a couple of its climactic scenes.

But Stronger just works, thanks to strong performances across the board and lovely, understated direction from Green (who’s tremendous at how he uses the frame to highlight his actors). It’s a great reminder why Hollywood keeps making movies like this and why the Oscars love them so much. For all future iterations on the form, however, Stronger offers one big lesson worth learning.

Stronger works where so many other films like it fail for one simple reason

Jake Gyllenhaal is terrific in Stronger.
Roadside Attractions

In most inspirational true-life stories — but especially in the ones that fail — a character’s internal journey is often treated as secondary to their external one. And early on in Stronger, it feels like the same basic arc is being set up. Jeff (Gyllenhaal) wants to walk again. With the help of his on-again, off-again girlfriend Erin (Maslany) and high-tech prosthetics, he’s going to regain that ability.

But fairly early in this storyline, Green and screenwriter John Pollono make clear that the real journey Jeff has to undertake is the internal one. The experience of the bombing and losing his legs has left John with PTSD, and since he has trouble expressing his vulnerability or asking for help, his greatest struggle will prove to be a psychological one.

Now, there’s a simple reason most movies like this focus on external, rather than internal journeys: It’s really hard to depict an internal journey onscreen, and if you screw it up, it leads to histrionics that feel unbelievable at best and laughable at worst. What makes this journey work is how Gyllenhaal modulates every little movement he makes. By the time he has the obligatory “breaking down and weeping” scene, he’s built to it so beautifully that it doesn’t feel over the top. (His work reminded me of a slightly less internalized version of Casey Affleck’s Oscar-winning performance in Manchester by the Sea.)

But Green also contributes to the steady accumulation of emotion that is Gyllenhaal’s performance. Every time that Jeff tries to walk on his new prosthetic legs again, Green shoots it in a distancing wide shot, as if to underline how this process is all clinical, just a series of physical processes that he can figure out how to chain together if he keeps at it long enough. Green only goes in for close-ups when Jeff is in internal distress, the better to highlight Gyllenhaal’s performance, but also to underline the much harder problems Jeff has to face.

Stronger also subtly tweaks the eye-rolling “the love of one good woman can help a man overcome anything!” story arc that Maslany’s character would seem to invite. Erin really does help Jeff out, and Pollono’s script is terrific at highlighting how Jeff and Erin have a connection so strong that it keeps drawing them together, again and again, even when both know it’s not quite right. But said script also doesn’t let Jeff off the hook when he’s cruel to Erin — and she doesn’t, either. The best thing about Maslany’s performance is how she makes Erin’s boundaries clear and purposeful at all times, so she doesn’t simply get sucked into Jeff’s more obviously dramatic arc.

That could apply to so much in Stronger, though. It’s a movie about how a whole village of people mobilize to help Jeff, but in the end, only he can take the biggest step of all: admitting he needs those other people to help him before he falls into the dark ocean inside his own head. Stronger is designed to jerk tears, but its greatest feat is that it actually earns them in the end.

Stronger opens in theaters Friday, September 22.