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Deep Focus 

Stronger tells a tragic story with an emphasis on human connection.

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Early in Stronger, director David Gordon Green constructs a scene that should be taught in film schools as a paradigm for avoiding exploitation of a real-life tragedy. In this case, it's the story of Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), a working-class Boston man who was one of the victims of the 2013 terrorist attack at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, losing both of his legs in the explosion. The scene in question is both simple and harrowing, involving doctors changing the bandages on Jeff's amputated legs for the first time. As the actual dressing change takes place in an out-of-focus background, Green keeps the focus in the foreground, as Jeff's on-again/off-again girlfriend Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany) tries to comfort him through the pain.

It would be easy enough to emphasize how much more gracefully Stronger approaches this horrible event than last year's grotesquely misguided Patriots Day, but that wouldn't be giving the creative team nearly enough credit. Even as it remains intently concentrated on one family's very personal story, it feels like a mission statement on how art can tell that kind of story while still showing a deep respect for the pain—physical and emotional—that was involved.

Green and screenwriter John Pollono do a terrific job from the outset of building the world in which these characters live, which could come off as a cliché of sports-obsessed, foul-mouthed, bar-dwelling Bostonians, yet instead simply feels richly authentic. The banter between Jeff and his buddies, or with his hard-drinking mother (Miranda Richardson), establishes the no-nonsense outward toughness that makes it perhaps more of a challenge for Jeff to begin his recovery. How do you heal when pissing and moaning is considered a cultural taboo, and where the omnipresent slogan of "Boston Strong" makes it harder to admit when you need help?

Gyllenhaal embodies those tangled feelings in a performance that's more than just a showcase for representing a physical disability. He turns in wonderfully complex work, whether it's representing Jeff's panic attack during a public appearance at a hockey game, or conveying the emasculation he feels when getting into a bar fight where nobody is willing to punch him. Jeff Bauman's story is inspirational, but the character's arc in Stronger from self-pity to some measure of acceptance never feels like a product smoothed out for mass-market uplift.

As great as Gyllenhaal is, however, Maslany is even better. There's a fascinating dynamic built into the relationship between Jeff and Erin, predicated on the guilt Erin feels because Jeff was only at the finish line as a romantic gesture to support her running in the marathon, at a time when they were actually broken up. Maslany gets a couple of solid big speeches as she tries to tough-love Jeff out of his despair, but the real magic in her performance is physical—all about body language and eye movements, and revealing the ferocious strength in this woman. If there's a better supporting performance in 2017, it will be a great year indeed.

While Stronger never takes the spotlight off of the relationships between its main characters, the narrative eventually does circle back to the events of April 15, 2013, in a scene that captures the chaos and carnage in a way that's honest and hard to watch but still restrained. Yet while that scene might serve as the emotional climax in a dumber, uglier version of this story, this movie instead builds to the meeting between Jeff and Carlos (Carlos Sanz), the man whose intervention at the scene of the bombing saved Jeff's life. It's a true lump-in-the-throat exchange—one of many in Stronger—because it's all about the inexplicable things that people can need in order to feel whole again.

This is why Stronger—even as the pacing drags a bit in its second half, and it makes unfortunate use of the cliché of the emotionally Purging Shower—proves so surprisingly touching when Jeff ultimately finds himself able to acknowledge why anyone might see him as a hero, when all he did in his own mind was lose his legs. Everything circles back to the vision embodied by that scene of Jeff's dressings getting changed, because Green's camera isn't focused on what Jeff has lost. It focuses on two people, and on the connections that make it possible to crawl back from the abyss.

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