'Stronger:' a bitter-sweet survivor's story

“STRONGER “ is about a survivor but it is not a feel-good movie.

“STRONGER “ is about a survivor but it is not a feel-good movie.

In 2013, 27-year-old Jeff Bauman went to watch his ex-girlfriend, Erin Hurley, run the Boston Marathon. He was there when the bombs went off and lost both of his legs as a result. An Associated Press photograph of Bauman, bloodied and gravely injured, being wheeled away from the site by a man in a cowboy hat became an instant icon of that terrorist attack.

But the attack is not the focus here. It’s the story of the aftermath that director David Gordon Green tells in “Stronger,” based on Bauman’s co-written memoir, and it is raw, ugly and painful to watch at times. There is alcoholism, bitterness, suffering and pain. Hope is something that’s merely projected on him from the outside. He feels none of it.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Bauman as a regular local guy with an affable demeanor. We meet him for a brief moment in his ordinary life — ending his shift at Costco to rush to watch the Red Sox game and try to make overtures to his ex (Tatiana Maslany), who hasn’t been responding to his texts.

Green films these early scenes like it’s the beginning of a rom-com. When Bauman goes to the finish line, poster in hand to be there for Hurley, the music is bouncy and hopeful and proud of himself for “showing up” — his usual inability to do so being what ended their relationship in the first place.

Hurley, who hadn’t quite made it to the finish when the bombs went off, sees Bauman on the TV and rushes to his side in the hospital. Maslany, a subtle but powerful actress, has the ability to tug at your heartstrings with just the quiver of her chin.

It is, in many ways, an anti-Hollywood movie with a fittingly complicated ending. The movie cuts off on a positive note in their relationship, with them together and expecting a child. In real life, Bauman and Hurley divorced earlier this year. But this movie is not a love story. It’s about the sometimes ugly truth behind a symbol. And the most powerful moment comes late in the film with the man in the cowboy hat.

The resilience of humans is something that will never cease to amaze — especially as terrorist attacks continue and natural disasters devastate lives. That “Stronger,” as unpleasant as it is, doesn’t shy away from the complicated side of recovery is admirable to say the least. It couldn’t have come at a more poignant time, either.

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