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The Greatest (2010) ***

April 10, 2010

written by: Shana Feste

produced by: Beau St. Clair & Lynette Howell

directed by: Shana Feste

Rated R (for language, some sexual content and drug use)

99 min.

U. S. release date: April 9, 2010 (wide)

The opening of writer and debut director Shana Feste’s film has the audience viewing two teens making out leading to the loss of their virginity. This could have immediately told the audience that they will once again witness something that has been shown time and time again. But no, there’s something different here. There’s an honest portrayal of longing and love as well as palatable awkwardness and nervousness that is real. This remains evident in the fine performances of the cast in a film that focuses on the variety of emotions that come with grief, loss, and mourning.

Because we’re introduced to those emotions and feelings right away, we are immediately pulled in to these characters. So, when this couple Bennett (Aaron Johnson) and Rose (Carey Mulligan) are involved in a shocking motor vehicle collision later, we are stunned. Rose attends Bennett’s crowded funeral with her arm in a cast, looking banged up and it is here that we see what kind of story will be told. We see Bennett’s parents and his younger brother, sitting in the front row, staring off as if each of them is the only one there. This continues for the trio in the limo as they leave the cemetery, while the opening credits take their time. The camera holds on them for what seems like a good couple of minutes. Grace (Susan Sarandon) and Ryan (Jimmy Simmons) each escape out their respective windows, as they bookend a conflicted Allen (Pierce Brosnan). It’s an amazing scene that once again establishes immediate characterization in a natural way while delivering the first of many opportunities for Brosnan to reveal a fantastic command and range.

It becomes clear that each of these characters will be dealing with loss in different ways. Grace withdraws and cries herself awake each morning, becoming almost inconsolable. Ryan retreats to his room to a haze of self-medication while Allen feels he needs to be the strong one and tried to ignore expressing his grief. These may seem like typical stock responses to tragedy but that’s because they are real. Nothing is forced or created for dramatic effect. It also helps that there is some past revelations like Allen, a professor, recently ended an affair that he had with a colleague and Ryan feels like the effed-up little brother who has to continuously be tested for his sobriety.

Then an added emotional element is thrust upon the family when Rose shows up at their door three months later. She announces she’s pregnant with Bennett’s baby and it becomes unspoken that she has nowhere to go. Grace wants nothing to do with her, seeing her as the reason her son is dead and even wishes it was Rose who died. Allen is just the opposite, feeling like he can connect to someone who was close to his son, who meant the world to his son. Ryan isn’t sure what to make of her at first, finding it typical that his all-star athlete brother deems “The Greatest” by so many, isn’t even alive to get in trouble for getting a girl pregnant. He eventually warms up to Rose, filling her in on jut how long Bennett had a thing for her.

And what of Rose? How does she take all this in and why does she need to a place to stay? Well, that’s where the script suffers a bit. Mulligan does a solid job portraying an unusually positive and calm teen despite her predicament but Feste doesn’t divulge enough about where she comes from. It’s revealed that she only has her mother who is unstable due to her alcoholism, but is that all the family she has? These questions really don’t linger that long but they’re there nonetheless. While the script may be somewhat predictable it’s also tolerable since the characters have already pulled the audience in with their convincing responses.

Another example of screenplay flaw is the subplot in which Ryan attends grief counseling at some local church and finds a girl. It seems somewhat tacked on. Simmons does quite well in these scenes and it’s obvious that this element is included as a way to progress the character but it seemed uncharacteristic that he would seek this out on his own. The gradual friendship that he strikes up with Ashley (Zoe Kravitz), another peer there, just feels like she was written in to give him someone to talk to. Which would be fine if you actually feel like they connected.

The subplot that did work for me involved Grace’s routine hospital visits to Jordan (Michael Shannon), the unrepentant other driver are revealing and powerful. Having previously delivered similar roles like this in the past (“Moonlight Mile” & “In the Valley of Elah”), Sarandon may be no stranger to this type of character, but once again is exceptional. The scene she has with the invaluable Shannon, whose character finally awakens from a coma, is emotionally difficult but necessary. The standout performance here is Brosnan though. For anyone doubting the stamina of his post-Bond work, check this film out (and “The Matador”) to see him embrace such vulnerability and openness. He has to bottle up his emotions which result in silent expressive nuances but when he does vocalize his pain, it’s a welcome side of Brosnan that few are aware of.

The film isn’t pretentiously gushy or blatantly melodramatic. It doesn’t force us to feel a certain way and what it lacks in aspects of the writing it certainly makes up for in the acting. Feste helps the viewers understand who Bennett was to each character in well-placed scenes that play more like snapshots into his past than flashbacks. Johnson, soon to bust out with his role in “Kick-Ass”, is charming and undeniably likeable as Bennett, which is integral since everyone was enamored by him.

It’s understandable that the subject of the loss of a child is not something that audiences will flock to at the local cineplex. For some, it may be too close to home. But if you’re like me and can find yourself becoming emotionally invested in such a story, well then it is something you can at least think back on and admire. “The Greatest” may not entirely live up to its title but at least it’s actors inhabit the screen with honesty as they take you through a difficult journey that all of us have or will experience.

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