Stronger, the recently released film starring Jake Gyllenhaal, is ostensibly about Jeff Bauman, a survivor of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing who became emblematic of the city's spirit after he lost both his legs in the explosion. The movie devotes most of its running time to exploring his physical and mental journey in the aftermath of the trauma — so far, you've got the makings of a standard Hollywood biopic, tracing the hero's journey through hell, and back.
Where the film really stands out; however, is in its portrayal of the women in Bauman's life. Miranda Richardson is indomitable as Bauman's mother Patty, who struggles with her own demons while pushing her son to accept his responsibility as a symbol of resistance. But it's Tatiana Maslany who challenges the traditional trope of the hero's faithful love interest as Erin Hurley, Bauman's on-again-off-again girlfriend. It was she who Bauman was trying to win back by standing at the marathon finish line; she was the only reason he was near the explosion that day; and wrestling with feelings of guilt, love and sometimes utter disgust, she stays to care for him. But what sets her apart from other loving girlfriend characters is how she stays.
This film doesn't shy away from complex characters. In a traditional hero biopic, women are expected to service the male protagonist. When times are tough, they're a soft shoulder to cry on. His dreams are their dreams; his failures are their failures. Not so for Hurley, who, at times, seems totally ready to give up on the man she loves. And for good reason: Bauman can be utterly selfish and nihilistic, unconcerned with the fact that the people around him have dropped everything to help him get better.
The final straw comes when Hurley tells him she's pregnant. Bauman freaks out, yelling at her that he can't be a father, that she has to get an abortion. Rather than cater to his needs, Hurley gets out of the car, leaving him to fend for himself. This leads to one of the most harrowing scenes in the film, in which Bauman has to drag himself across a parking lot to access the front door of his apartment building.
Was it selfish of Hurley to leave him there? Definitely. But it's what makes her human, and not just a foil for a man's story of resilience. She's given up her job, her family, all the things that she held dear, in order to help him. It's a rare instance of a female supporting character expressing her own aspirations.
I asked Riva Marker, Gyllenhaal's producing partner on the film and co-founder of their company, Nine Stories Productions, about the need for complex female characters who stand on their own. "Erin and Patty are the life’s blood of this story," she said. "They’re heroes as much as Jeff is a hero. Without them he never would have been able to make it or to pull through."
Reality spoiler: After welcoming daughter Nora in 2014 (and tying the knot a couple of months later), Baumann and Hurley announced their plans to separate earlier this year. “Jeff and Erin have decided that it is best to move forward as friends,” a statement from their spokesperson read. “Though their relationship has changed, their admiration, love and mutual respect for each other will never waver. They are dedicated to loving and parenting their daughter, Nora, and ask for privacy.”
If the movie were the traditional love story we've come to expect, this would be really poor timing. But actually, knowing that the two aren't together anymore even before seeing the film just deepens narrative. These aren't two people who faced hardship only to come out glowing. They are just that, people. People who sometimes win, and sometimes fail, but are always ready to surprise you.
Stronger is an incredible story of human spirit and endurance — but it's not just Jeff Bauman's. And that's what makes it so powerful.
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