RUNNING TIME 98 minutes
WRITTEN AND directed by Shana Feste
STARRING Pierce Brosnan, Susan Sarandon, Carey Mulligan, Michael Shannon
3 Eyeballs out of 4
Grief comes cloaked in as many forms as the tragedies that cause it. Almost all of them are on view in The Greatest, a somber, sensitively acted, intelligently penned and sincerely directed film about the untimely death of a much-admired young man, the profound impact it has on his family and the various ways the people who love him learn to express their mourning. The usual grumpy cynics will undoubtedly call it sentimental and manipulative. Ignore them. In spite of an unfortunate title that invites critical puns, The Greatest is cut from the same bolt of emotional genre fabric as the 1980 classic Ordinary People—a rare bird among films because it is strong and filled with extraordinary human values that remain foreign to most hermetically sealed studio packages. The title refers to the boy who departs too soon, not to the movie itself, which may also depart too soon depending on box office grosses, but not because it’s undeserving.
In the opening scene, two lovers on their way home from a date stop their car unwisely to declare unconditional affection, and in a shattering moment of smashing steel and grinding chrome, they’re broadsided by another vehicle. The boy, Bennett Brewer (Aaron Johnson), a teenage icon everybody calls “the greatest,” dies in the wreckage, leaving behind a fractured Brewer family forced to deal with the same crisis in different ways. Grace, the unhinged mother (Susan Sarandon), slowly cracks up. Dad Allen (Pierce Brosnan) is a brilliant math professor who hides his pain so successfully inside his heart that he stops sleeping, avoids any mention of loss, forgets how to balance a simple equation and ends up in the hospital. Younger brother Ryan (charismatic newcomer Johnny Simmons), who both worshiped and resented Bennett’s place in the family structure, suffers from an inferiority complex that eventually drives him into rehab. Then, with the unexpected jolt of a knock on the door, Bennett’s 18-year-old girlfriend, Rose, who survived the accident, arrives three months pregnant with no other place to go; Rose is played with earth-shaking truthfulness by the enchanting Carey Mulligan (Oscar-nominated for An Education). The Brewer family is turned inside out, and the film explores raw, warm, gentle, enraged and heart-rending conflicts that lead to valid human drama. While Rose struggles to win the family’s trust and love for their unborn grandchild, people sign her belly like a yearbook, the kid brother turns to drugs, the father learns the restorative value of openly sharing his pain with others and Grace slavishly visits the driver of the other car (Michael Shannon), who is hauled away for previous crimes after he regains consciousness. In an effort to turn her favorite son into a martyr, she ruins everyone else’s life, too. Some of the family members’ actions are tender, others are terrifying, all seem like genuine and credible steps toward redemption. Meanwhile, bring plenty of Kleenex and apologize to no one for the tears that are inevitable.
Susan Sarandon has traveled this road before, especially in the sucrose melodrama Moonlight Mile, where she played the novelist mother of a murdered girl whose fiancé (Jake Gyllenhaal) moved in and mysteriously cured her writer’s block when she embarked on a book about her dead daughter. (“Fuck the perfume, give me the warts!” she whooped in the final reel.) As a family drama about the death of a prodigal son, The Greatest falls, as I mentioned earlier, in the much more distinguished tradition of Robert Redford’s Ordinary People. A debut effort carefully written and directed by Shana Feste, it offers a nuanced diagnosis of people in both their goodness and imperfection, with a touching screenplay that focuses on the actual things people do and say in survival mode. This is not the kind of personal movie Hollywood knows how to make very often, and God knows it is not the kind of movie Hollywood ever knows how to sell. (Already they’re asking, “Does it have legs?”) It’s not Avatar, but in an equitable movie world, there should be something for everyone.
One caveat: If it’s true, as they say, that as one door closes, another door opens, I feel that perhaps in The Greatest too many doors open too fast in time to meet the deadline for a happy ending, but this is just a small hangnail amid the manicured strengths of a film of maturity and courage, one that kept me consistently engaged. Quite an accomplishment, really, for a new filmmaker on her first date with a camera.