Movie review: 'The Greatest' explores a family in grief
Friday, April 16, 2010
What does grief look like?
You won't find one single answer in "The Greatest." There are too many forms of the emotion on display in Shana Feste's feature debut, a meditation on loss by a writer-director whose honesty, sensitivity and intelligence more than mitigate the film's histrionic qualities.
The film opens with a bang: the death of Bennett Brewer (Aaron Johnson), a high school senior whose sheer wonderfulness -- revealed in flashback -- lends the movie its title. Mere moments into the story, a truck slams into Bennett's car, killing him. Bennett's passenger, a classmate named Rose (Carey Mulligan), survives, as does their unborn child.
That's right, on the night of the accident, as fate would have it, the two have just made love for the first time. She's pregnant but doesn't know it yet. What she also doesn't know -- though she'll figure this out later, too, after moving in with Bennett's family -- is that he was probably the love of her life.
If this all sounds like the plot of the latest Nicholas Sparks weeper, relax. The result is decidedly less soggy than you'd expect, thanks mainly to powerfully affecting performances by Oscar nominee Mulligan ("An Education") and the actors who portray Bennett's three family members, each of whom responds to grief in a different yet entirely plausible way.
Bennett's father, Allen (Pierce Brosnan), is stoic in his grief. In short, he swallows it, to the point where he very nearly has a heart attack from bottled-up sorrow. Bennett's mother, Grace (Susan Sarandon), wallows in hers. For Grace, a minute doesn't go by without thinking of Bennett. She even takes up a bedside vigil in the hospital room of the comatose lowlife (Michael Shannon) who plowed into her son, waiting for him to wake up. Not because she blames him, either, but because, in a ghoulish way, she wants to vicariously live through the last few minutes of her son's life, even as the blood was draining from his body.
Grace doesn't understand Allen's coping mechanism. She sees his strength as weakness. And she resents Rose's very presence. "It should have been her," she snarls at one point.
As for Bennett's younger brother, Ryan (Johnny Simmons), a recovering druggie who has always felt lacking when compared with golden boy Bennett, he's comfortable simply pretending that his grief doesn't exist. And for the most part, it works, until the pain explodes out of nowhere, in a torrent of tears that arrives late in the film. It's one of the most wrenching scenes in a movie that's filled with wrenching scenes.
Rose's grief is perhaps the most intriguing of all, because it looks the least like mourning. Because she has never really had a chance to get to know Bennett, she spends her days soaking up every scrap of information she can get his family to share about him: his shoe size, his birthday, etc.
Rose's process, then, is as much a process of discovery as it is of loss. It's easier for her, though, in a sense. She's carrying Bennett's child and has a reason to look forward.
More challenging is the journey that Bennett's family is on. In the end, however, they, too, will find that they have gained something, even as they've said goodbye to something else.
** 1/2 R. At Landmark's Bethesda Row. Contains crude language, a sex scene, nudity, drug use and a graphic description of automotive crash trauma. 100 minutes.