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Aaron Johnson & Carey Mulligan in THE GREATEST (Photo: Paladin)

Written & Directed by Shana Feste
Produced by Lynette Howell & Beau St. Clair
Released by Paladin
USA. 100 min. Rated R
Pierce Brosnan, Susan Sarandon, Carey Mulligan, Aaron Johnson, Johnny Simmons, Jennifer Ehle, Michael Shannon & Zoe Kravitz 

The Brewer family rides in silence to a funeral—mother Grace (Susan Sarandon), father Allen (Pierce Brosnan), and teenage son Ryan (Johnny Simmons). She looks out one window, the son out the other. Stuck in the middle, the father struggles to speak, turns from one to the other, and then looks straight ahead. The camera stays still on them for over two minutes.

These sensitive moments with a stellar cast lift writer/director Shana Feste’s debut The Greatest above dealing-with-grief melodrama. Already witnessed was the shocking car crash that killed their 18-year-old son, Bennett (Aaron Johnson), just as he was declaring his love to classmate Rose (Carey Mulligan).

It is the summer before college for Bennett and Rose. They were in the process of pulling away from high school, where he was labeled as “best all around” and Rose as the artsy hippie—their paths only crossed between his soccer and her piano practice. They were just starting to pull away from their families—his jealous younger brother and his parents’ strained marriage and Rose’s single mother, whether in or out of rehab.

The family’s silence is broken three months later when Rose shows up at their door. This is Mulligan’s first big role since her Oscar-nominated performance in An Education (she had a small part in Brothers), so there’s a curiosity factor if she can sustain that promise. She almost overpowers the story. Rose needs help, but when she announces she’s pregnant with Bennett’s baby, she has considerably more fortitude and equanimity than the distraught Brewers.

They pretty much ignore the glowing Rose, now living in their large house, and each continue their dysfunctional routine. The insomniac father has robotically returned to work as a math professor. The guilt-ridden brother joins a very social teen grief group. The mother becomes obsessed with knowing every physical detail of her son’s death, particularly his final 17 minutes of consciousness. She’s so convinced that the comatose trucker (Michael Shannon) who smashed into Bennett will report her son’s last words that she haunts his hospital room to help along his recovery. Sarandon played a bereft mother who coped through eccentric humor in Brad Silberling’s somewhat similar Moonlight Mile (2002), but here Grace’s all-consuming, insistent grief is more credible.

While the serene and confident Rose wakes the father to the healing balm of the coming new life, it’s a bit awkward how she uses him as a kind of Bennett-substitute for company. More emotional realism is captured through small, insightful moments. The father’s panic when Ryan momentarily slips from sight while swimming in the ocean. Ryan’s explosion of fury at a girl who betrays his trust. Rose facing blank lines of daddy data in a baby book.

The Brewer family shares a well-to-do suburban milieu with the repressed mourners in Robert Redford‘s Ordinary People (1980), which Feste cites as an inspiration, and both dramas share the same cinematographer, John Bailey, but the Brewers’ experiences and reactions seem less bound by the same class and background, but more universal. Nora Lee Mandel
April 2, 2010



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