'The Greatest'

Well-observed study of an affluent family's grief and rebirth after a tragic accident.

Far from a remake of the Muhammad Ali biopic, “The Greatest” is a well-observed study of an affluent family’s grief and rebirth after a tragic accident. Writer-director Shana Feste displays impressive control over all aspects of her feature debut, which deals in a nuanced manner with the different ways those affected by the loss deal with it. As demonstrated by the recent “Revolutionary Road,” this sort of grim material with agonized characters emits serious noncommercial vibes, suggesting a hard road ahead in a marketplace in which solid reviews will have to help the star names in selling it.

Feste was inspired by the psychological insight into family disruptions of “Ordinary People” in making her film, and one critical result of this influence was her recruitment of that picture’s cinematographer, John Bailey, whose work here is superlative; the compositions are bold and strong, the lighting exquisite, making “The Greatest” a visual pleasure.

Opening sequence comes out of nowhere to slug you in the gut. A young couple tenderly makes love, then are seen in the fellow’s Karmann Ghia, which he impulsively stops in the middle of the empty road at night to say something important –and Wham!, the car is smashed by a speeding truck.

The teenage boy’s funeral is followed by a minutes’-long take that bluntly observes the mother, Grace Brewer (Susan Sarandon), father Allen (Pierce Brosnan) and remaining teen son Ryan (Johnny Simmons) mourning in their own ways in silence in the back of the limousine.

Outwardly taking things hardest is Grace, who begins bawling the moment she awakes in the morning and soon develops an obsession for knowing what her son Bennett (Aaron Johnson) might have felt, thought or said during the 17 minutes he remained alive after the accident.

Allen, an advanced mathematics professor, holds it all in, although he does tell his gorgeous mistress (Jennifer Ehle) at school not to expect to see him, since he must do everything he can to support his wife.

The wild card is Rose (Carey Mulligan), the woman who was in the car with Bennett. Shesuffered only mild injuries and is, lo and behold, pregnant. As disclosed in short flashbacks, Rose and Bennett were longtime classmates who had slept together just the one time. Without resources or family to support her, the attractive, strong-minded young lady intends to keep the baby, a decision Allen supports but surprisingly does not please Grace, who maintains a resentful distance from Rose even after she moves into the Brewer’s lovely rambling house (the pic was shot in and around Nyack, N.Y.).

These initial positions undergo tectonic shifts through the nine months of the story, as Allen’s grief eventually bursts out, Ryan finds a way to articulate how he feels and Grace at long last can speak with the rough character (Michael Shannon) who rammed into her son. It’s all done with intelligence, sensitivity and credibility, even if the emotional trauma of parents losing a child is not the sort of thing most people, especially other parents, want to spend much time grappling with.

Thesps do admirable, potent work, with Brosnan coping well with the sort of heavy dramatic lifting he only occasionally undertakes; Sarandon channeling a mother’s distressed obsession with complete conviction; and Mulligan, a British newcomer who proves a revelation in another Sundance entry, “An Education,” bringing a bracing resilience to a teenager for whom one night changed the rest of her life. Simmons comes into his own impressively when given the opportunity in the latter going.

Craft contributions are first-rate.

The Greatest

Production

A Barbarian Film Group presentation of a Silverwood Films/Irish Dreamtime production. Produced by Lynette Howell, Beau St. Clair. Executive producers, Pierce Brosnan, Aaron Kaufman, Doug Dey, Ron Hartenbaum, Douglas Kuber, Myles Nestel, Anthony Callie. Co-producers, Amanda J. Scarano, Katie Mustard. Directed, written by Shana Feste.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), John Bailey; editor, Cara Silverman; music, Christophe Beck; music supervisors, Manish Raval, Tom Wolfe; production designer, Judy Rhee; art director, Bradley Schmidt; set decorator, Laura Hyman; costume designer, Luca Mosca; sound (Dolby Digital), Jerry Stein; supervising sound designer, Michael Baird; associate producers, Nissa Ren Cannon, Chris Charalambous; assistant director, Curtis A. Smith; second unit director, Nick Caccese; second unit camera, Peter Hlinomaz; casting, Laura Rosenthal, Ali Farrell. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 17, 2009. Running time: 100 MIN.

Cast

Allen Brewer - Pierce Brosnan Grace Brewer - Susan Sarandon Rose - Carey Mulligan Ryan - Johnny Simmons Bennett - Aaron Johnson Ashley - Zoe Kravitz Joan - Jennifer Ehle Lydia - Amy Morton Jordan Walker - Michael Shannon

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