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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Stronger graphically re-creates the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, complete with severed limbs and plenty of blood. It also presents a culture in which drinking too much is a given and includes a brief sex scene with partial nudity (bare back, side of a breast). There's also quite a bit of swearing, from "f--k" to "s--t" and more. The main character (real-life bombing survivor Jeff Bauman, played by Jake Gyllenhaal) takes a long time to get there, but he eventually arrives at a better place than he first finds himself in when the bomb takes his legs. The movie's messages of personal growth in the face of adversity and the strength drawn from family and loved ones will likely balance some of the less kid-friendly elements for many viewers.
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What's the story?
STRONGER is a fact-based drama that takes on the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. It tells the story of Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), who loses his legs in the blast but eventually finds some direction. In the film, Bauman is a bit of an unfocused man-child who can't keep it together well enough to hang on to his girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany). Despite the aid and attention of family (including his boozy but adoring mom, Patty, played by Miranda Richardson) and loved ones, Bauman seems ill-equipped to recover emotionally. The film follows Bauman's journey from shell-shocked reluctant hero to someone who's strong enough to shoulder responsibility beyond himself.
Is it any good?
David Gordon Green's Stronger shifts the focus from the terrorist hunt connected to the Boston bombing to an effective personal story of rebuilding yourself from the studs. (As a result, it's an unintended but effective companion piece to Patriots Day.) Bauman, who famously helped identify the bombers from his hospital bed, has every bit as tough a time adjusting to post-attack life without legs as you'd expect. The film presents him as a somewhat directionless man-child who's suddenly thrust into the spotlight and very much not ready for his close-up -- despite Patty's smothering love and the support of way-too-good-for-him Erin. The film takes an awfully long time arriving at Bauman's rise up from PTSD-fueled drinking, self-pity, and self-destructiveness, but it does get there.
But beneath the expected inspirational tale, Stronger has an interesting and effective undercurrent of guilt, mostly in the form of survivor's guilt. It's unspoken but present. Where the film is "strongest" is in its unspoken moments, actually. Green wisely makes room for his actors to breathe. Much is told in lingering reaction shots, letting us experience what the characters are feeling. This works especially well with Maslany, who turns in outstanding work as long-suffering Erin. Her performance is understated and entirely present. From the smile she can't suppress when on-again, off-again boyfriend Jeff does something charming early on, to her wordless realization that he was hurt in the bombing, and in so many other moments, Maslany is disarmingly unadorned and real. Unfortunately, the narrative isn't arranged in the most compelling fashion. It may closely mirror reality, for all we know, but as a drama, it has a bit of drift to it; it lacks drive. Still, Maslany, plus the effective Clancy Brown in a smaller role as Jeff’s dad, help elevate the film.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about Stronger's messages. What does Jeff learn over the course of the story? Which events/meetings seemed to turn him around in the end? Do you consider him a role model? Why or why not? How does he demonstrate perseverance? Why is that an important character strength?
Why do you think Jeff didn't enjoy his newfound fame? Have you heard of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)? Would you consider "guilt" a theme in the film? Have you ever heard of "survivor's guilt"?
Were you surprised that a story about this incident/attack wasn't focused on catching the bombers? What did the filmmakers seem more interested in exploring? How accurate do you think it is to what really happened?
Did you notice how long the director chose to hold on reaction shots (where you see a person's facial expression while something else is happening or someone else is speaking)? Why do you think he did that? What's the effect of that, rather than always cutting to a close-up of the speaker, or always showing us what the subject sees?
- In theaters: September 22, 2017
- On DVD or streaming: December 19, 2017
- Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Clancy Brown, Miranda Richardson
- Director: David Gordon Green
- Studios: Lionsgate, Roadside Attractions
- Genre: Drama
- Character Strengths: Perseverance
- Run time: 116 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: language throughout, some graphic injury images, and brief sexuality/nudity
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