Title: The Greatest
Genre: Drama, Romance
Director: Shana Feste
Screenwriters: Shana Feste
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Pierce Brosnan
Bennett Brewer, beloved, Berkeley-bound high school senior, winner of his school’s “Best-All-Around” award, is killed when he impulsively stops his car in the middle of the road to confess his love to the 18 year-old Rose, to whom he just lost his virginity. Rose survives, as does the baby — Bennett’s — she is carrying. Unfortunately, Rose’s father is long gone, and her awful mother just went into rehab. With nowhere to go, Rose is forced to move in with Bennett’s parents, Allen and Grace, and his brother Ryan. Grace is consumed by grief, and resents the implied offer of Rose’s baby as a substitute for her son, some sort of consolation prize. Allen, trying his best to keep it together, finds solace in Rose, and her wholehearted adoration of Bennett. Ryan, the self-professed fuck-up, resented his popular big brother, and struggles with his inability to feel much of anything about his death.
The Greatest is the kind of movie that every atom in my body resists. A shamelessly contrived three-hankie weepie, Shana Feste’s directorial debut had all the makings of an insufferable middlebrow “crowdpleaser.” In fact, perusing the Sundance reviews makes clear that, in fact, many people found it to be exactly that. I respectfully dissent. Though the movie is lamely plotted, and does not compare well to Ordinary People, its obvious inspiration, it’s redeemed by its performances, its sporadic, carefully observed moments of truth, and the fact that Feste knows from good drama. The Greatest may be cheesy, but it ain’t amateur hour.
The main attraction here is Carey Mulligan, out-of-nowhere Oscar nominee for An Education, who plays Rose with a sensitivity and radiant intelligence that transcends the screenplay. As written, Rose is a grief-stricken variation on the “manic pixie,” as well as a bit of a moody brat — not least because she shows up at the Brewers’ door and effectively demands to lodge with them indefinitely. In Mulligan’s hands, though, her quirkiness becomes endearing, and the unnatural self-possession becomes a sly confidence.
Pierce Brosnan — who, with this film, Ghost Writer, and his strong performance in the otherwise inadequate Remember Me, is having a banner year — is nearly as good playing Allen. He shines in individual, heartbreaking moments: I loved his panicked attempt at a wolf-whistle when his remaining son ventures too far into the ocean, and the look of anguish when he realizes that his wife has left Rose’s hospital room in an angry huff. His relationship with Grace, played somewhat to the cheap seats by Susan Sarandon, is surprisingly believable, though the movie hits certain notes — such as the contrast between their ways of grieving, which is hammered home every five minutes — far too hard.
What ultimately gets The Greatest across the finish line is Feste’s ability to milk her set-up for maximum drama without tipping over into the absurd or laughable. There’s a lot of crying and hysteria here, but the movie somehow remains grounded. I think it’s the characters who balance each other out: the explosive Grace and the kind, subdued Allen; the abrasive, volatile Ryan and the gentle Rose. And Feste, too, knows when to pull back. For every scene of people collapsing in each other’s arms and engaging in shouting matches, there’s a quiet moment when the characters are permitted to just be themselves.
The film’s attempts at unique flourishes are hit and miss. There is a scene involving Rose dragging Allen to a party that should have been left on the cutting room floor. I also objected to the ridiculously heavy-handed maneuver of smiting Allen with a near-heart attack and having the doctor announce the cause as suppressed emotional pain. Having the characters’ inner turmoil literally manifest itself as a medical condition seems like cheating.
On the other hand, there’s a lot here that’s just right. I loved the attenuated shot of Grace, Allen and Ryan silently driving home from Bennett’s funeral, early in the film — it’s beautifully acted, and a perfect introduction to the family. And I loved the way Feste scatters the particulars of Bennett and Rose’s brief courtship throughout the film. The Greatest‘s greatest coup is genuinely convincing us that when the truck crashed at full speed into Bennett’s car, Rose, Grace, Allen and Ryan each lost something extraordinary.