For a drama about a man whose legs are blown off in a terrorist attack, “Stronger” exhibits a fetching dose of gallows humor.
Its central character, the puckish 27-year-old Costco deli hand Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), personifies the “Boston Strong” mantra hatched to memorialize the 2013 bombing that took his limbs during the city’s annual marathon. Jeff, forever seeking a good time, perseveres with levity, which helps the movie avoid certain melodramatic clichés.
One particular scene best demonstrates the tragicomic tenor of “Stronger,” directed by David Gordon Green (“Pineapple Express,” “All the Real Girls”). Like all good things in this world, it involves a minor celebrity named Oprah Winfrey.
In “Stronger,” Jeff is weathering physical recovery, relying on a wheelchair while learning to walk with prosthetic legs, as the sudden pressure of being anointed a hometown hero mounts. Media attention and PTSD are draining the energy he needs to devote to rehabilitation. An hour into the film, during a family cookout, Jeff’s boozy mother, Patty (Miranda Richardson), makes an announcement: ”OK, listen up, this is how it’s gonna be. Fasten your seat belts,” she declares in a thick Boston accent, oven mitt on one hand and cigarette in the other. “Oprah’s coming.”
Cue mania. The family erupts at the mere mention of Oprah’s presence, thoughts of glamour dancing through their heads. Some relatives start jumping up and down; others stand in slack-jawed shock. Someone launches into a coughing fit. “Oh my god,” one declares. “Are you kidding me? Shut up! Oprah?! Are you fucking kidding me? You’re gonna meet Stedman! Gayle! Oprah!”
Meanwhile, Jeff and his girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany), stand on the sidelines, impassive. Erin interrupts the commotion to say that Jeff is done with interviews. More mania erupts.
“It’s fucking Oprah Winfrey. She’s the most famous person in the world,” Patty rebuts, to which Jeff apologizes. He can’t move forward with the plan.
“It’s Oprah Winfrey,” she repeats.
“I’m sorry, Ma,” Jeff says, pained at the thought of crushing his mother’s heart. Here it gets personal.
“Where would I have been without Oprah?” Patty asks, leaning into Jeff to prove she means business. “She got me through the bad times, and I don’t know where I would be. I would have hung myself in the bathroom without Oprah.” She starts to walk away. “Just saying.”
Dreams deferred, Patty takes a seat. Silence has fallen over the gathering.
“Well, hey, if Oprah’s your lifeline, you got a lot deeper issues, Patty,” Jeff’s uncle (Lenny Clarke) quips. “Fuck you, Bob,” Patty says. She’s quiet for a moment, and then Patty turns to Erin. “I just wanted people to see how amazing my son is, that’s all,” she says, resigned. “What’s so bad about that?”
In less that four minutes, this “Stronger” scene demonstrates the ebb and flow of the movie’s narrative. Jeff can’t stomach an Oprah interview because he can no longer give himself over to the many prying eyes that want to broadcast his story ― not even the “most famous person in the world.” To them, Jeff is an emblem, ready to be turned into a headline. But Jeff’s day-to-day reality has become one of struggle; he’s rebuilding himself physically and emotionally, even when he remains upbeat in the midst of misfortune.
What’s also striking about the exchange, apart from its comedic relief, is Patty’s hasty candor about having contemplated suicide. Richardson, who is stellar in the role, doesn’t ask for our tears, or even our sympathy. She confesses matter-of-factly, as if she is one of the many disciples saved by Oprah. Her daily “Oprah Winfrey Show” appointments were tantamount to church. Patty probably saw the famous 1998 episode in which Dr. Phil convinced a woman whose daughter was murdered not to take her own life, or the 2004 episode in which a California veterinarian named Christine McFadden talked about rediscovering the will to live after losing her four children.
Much of Patty’s past is left out of “Stronger,” and it’s unclear whether her comment about being close to suicide is meant literally. But we do know she is an undistinguished divorcee whose heavy drinking makes her erratic. She can book an Oprah visit or cheer Jeff on as he is paraded onto the ice at a Bruins game, but she does little to equip their apartment for her son’s disability. Her pain reflects an American commonality: Patty always tried her best, even when that wasn’t much. What does she have to show for it, other than the offspring who doubles as the pride of her life? Amid stress, a visit from Oprah would be the ultimate affirmation. It’s the closest she’s come to success.
“You know, I did the best I could with what I had,” a subdued but hopeful Patty tells Jeff toward the end of the movie. At this point, Jeff’s recovery has progressed, and his PTSD has waned. He’s just thrown the first pitch during a game at Fenway Park.
“You did all right, Ma,” Jeff responds.
“I just wish I’d done better for ya,” Patty says.
Like many thoughtful, refreshing moments in “Stronger,” the Oprah scene plays for laughs. But buried in it is a poignant morsel of honesty ― not only that Oprah Winfrey represents a uniting force across race and class lines, but that adversity, in its many forms, heartbreaking and otherwise, is a necessary universality.
“Stronger” is currently playing. It expands to additional theaters this weekend.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HELLO to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.