A young man dies in a car accident at the beginning of The Greatest, and for the rest of the movie, his loved ones grieve for him. There’s a candor to writer-director Shana Feste’s melodrama that’s alternately bracing and awkward, a willingness to plumb directly into matters of loss and reconciliation where other indies might enter through the side door. Because it’s so straightforward, how much The Greatest works relies entirely on the verity of Feste’s observations and the cast’s ability to carry these volcanic emotions across. In the smallest of moments, it can be profoundly affecting, like an early scene where the mother, waking up after a nap, begins sobbing uncontrollably as she slips back into consciousness. It’s when the small moments become large ones that Feste overreaches and the shaky performances don’t bail her out.
Fresh off her Oscar-nominated turn in An Education, Carey Mulligan acquits herself nicely as the deceased student’s girlfriend, an impish loner who turns up at his parents’ doorstep, pregnant with their son’s child. She finds each member of his family grieving in different ways: The mother, played by Susan Sarandon, is a basket case, pausing from her crying jags only to obsess over the driver of the other car (Michael Shannon) and what he might have witnessed in the last moments of her son’s life. By contrast, the father, played by Pierce Brosnan, seems more together, at least on the outside, and he’s much more willing to engage with Mulligan as part of the family. Meanwhile, their youngest son (Johnny Simmons), a recovering drug addict, attempts to work through his feelings in a grief counseling group.
A tearjerker of the Ordinary People kind, The Greatest seems more mysterious and acutely observed at the beginning than it turns out to be once the characters and relationships come into clearer focus. Feste shoots for the raw and cathartic, but her script is disappointingly schematic: Brosnan and Sarandon, both at their worst when called upon for histrionics, are too neatly divided into “the strong one” (who internalizes pain) and “the weak one” (who lets it all out), and the various subplots converge into an ending that’s Hollywood pat. It’s a film about the grieving process that winds up with processed grief.