Dir: Shana Feste. US. 2008. 98mins.
The Greatest charts the uneasy journey people must undertake in the face of grief, but first-time filmmaker Shana Feste can’t quite fully bring this emotionally delicate drama to fruition. A tearjerker about a middle-aged couple coping with the loss of their 18-year-old son - not to mention the imminent and unexpected birth of his child - The Greatest combines the tragedy of Ordinary People with the teen-pregnancy plotline of Juno, resulting in a film with some good performances that gets hamstrung by tonal problems.
Look for The Greatest to cater to adult audiences who embraced other grief-themed films such as In The Bedroom ($43m worldwide) and who will be further attracted to the material because of established stars Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon. Because of the grim subject matter, it will be important for the marketing to play up the film’s humorous touches and to highlight positive reviews in order to expand this drama’s audience.
Allen (Brosnan) and Grace Brewer (Sarandon) have just lost their son Bennett (Johnson) in a car crash. Shortly after the funeral, they meet his girlfriend Rose (Mulligan), who tells them that she’s carrying Bennett’s child. As the Brewers and their younger son Ryan (Simmons) cope with their grief, they take Rose in to their home and prepare for the baby’s birth.
By exploring the tricky process of mourning, The Greatest gives itself very little room for error - the heightened emotions associated with grief can lead to great drama, or if mishandled can give way to weepy melodramatics. Writing-directing newcomer Shana Feste has cited Ordinary People as one of her touchstones for this project, and like that Oscar-winner The Greatest uses a son’s death as a springboard to expose the cracks in a family’s foundation. Unfortunately, despite an affecting piano-centric score from Christophe Beck, Feste’s nuanced film is dramatically wobbly, veering from poignantly understated moments of insight to awkwardly played scenes of high intensity.
Feste sets up her characters as a series of damaged souls who were that way even before this tragedy, but the revealing of their individual secret pains can sometimes feel like forced plot twists rather than organic story developments. Her effective use of black humour goes a long way to temper the melancholy that’s inherent in the material, but she’s less steady when trying to demonstrate how grief can fundamentally alter people’s behaviour, placing the Brewers in out-of-character situations that strain believability.
Sarandon played a mother in mourning in the underrated Miracle Mile, and she draws on some of that for her role as the inconsolable Grace. Brosnan has more to work with as a math teacher who’s trying to bury his feelings, and he has several scenes that are touching in their restraint.
As the pregnant teen, Mulligan doesn’t go through the same highs and lows that the Brewers do, and consequently she’s a lively figure amidst the family’s misery. And in a one-scene cameo, Michael Shannon plays the other driver involved in the fatal car crash, once again demonstrating (as he did in Revolutionary Road and the little-seen Shotgun Stories) that he is a promising actor full of both intensity and vulnerability.
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