Aaron Johnson, Zoe Kravitz
- Rated R
- Buy the BD
All photos © Paladin
Reviewed by Jason Newman
t can't be coincidence that the cinematographer for Shana Feste's debut film "The Greatest" also lensed the 1980 tearfest "Ordinary People." Both movies revolve around the death of a child and how the relatives are able to cope (or not) with the loss. But where "People" focused on Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore repairing their relationship with living son Timothy Hutton, "The Greatest" one-ups the shock and emotional heft with deeper and more complex narrative layers.
The opening shot sets the scene for the entire film. Following the sudden death of their son Bennett (Aaron Johnson) in a car accident, Allen Brewer (Pierce Brosnan) lies awake all night staring at the alarm clock in deep thought. When the alarm goes off, awakening his wife Grace (Susan Sarandon), reality kicks in and the couple is forced to confront their living nightmare. It's this sense that one never really wakes up from a tragedy of this proportion that immediately imbues the film with its themes of coping, redemption and acceptance.
Mere days after Bennett's death, Allen and Grace are visited by Rose (Carey Mulligan), Bennett's girlfriend, who informs the couple that not only was she in love with Bennett—an admission complicated by the couple never hearing her name mentioned before—but that she is pregnant with Bennett's baby and needs a place to stay. Meanwhile, Bennett's drug-addled brother Ryan (Johnny Simmons) is trying to cope in his own way, sporadically appearing at a support group for grieving teenagers in scenes that conjure up the more depressing side of "Fight Club."
What prevents "The Greatest" from turning into a maudlin schmaltzfest is the depth given to each character by screenwriter and first-time director Shana Feste. The loss of a family member can't be easily packaged and categorized into distinct emotions. Rather, it's a cacophonous swirl of fear, anger, guilt, regret, and bewilderment that manifests itself and gets triggered by seemingly haphazard or innocuous events. (Exhibit A: Sarandon's breakdown upon seeing a small child in front of Bennett's favorite cereal in a supermarket.) With the arrival of Rose and the realization that a part of Bennett is still physically alive in Rose's unborn child, a wave of conflicting emotions envelops the Brewers, the conflict of which stands as the riveting crux of the film.
While Feste spoke with numerous grief victims to help shape the script, it's the performances themselves that deserve as much of the credit. Mulligan, Simmons and Sarandon all deftly display the wide range of emotions that accompany the grief process. And at the risk of playing armchair psychiatrist, it's hard to see how Brosnan, in the role of the father who blocks outward grief in an attempt to hold the family together, could escape his own demons to play Allan: namely, the tragic death of his first wife Cassandra Harris to cancer in 1991. Tellingly, we don't see Allan cry until the end of the film; a slightly cracked dam attempting to hold back water but inevitably destined to burst.
With "The Greatest," Feste has pulled off a difficult feat: creating a movie heavy with depth and gravitas without feeling overly sentimental or emotionally exploitative. The subject matter is a brave one for a neophyte filmmaker, but Feste directs with the practiced hand of a veteran. We're not exactly the sentimental types over here, but do a quick check for your heart if you don't find yourself at least a little choked up at some point during the film.