It goes without saying that all movies are manipulative. They want to make you feel something - amusement, terror, squeamishness - and tell their story in a way that brings you to those feelings.
The question is how much you notice the manipulation - and how much you mind it. I know a lot of critics who are instantly suspicious of any film that wants you to feel, instead of to think.
No doubt they'll hate The Greatest, a moving drama about the nature of grief and what it reveals about the grieving. I can already predict that there'll be plenty of reviews that accuse it of sentimentality, soap-operatics, being maudlin and, of course, being manipulative.
But Shana Feste's touching film is none of those things. While it will have you reaching for your hankies, the film itself is about much more than simply triggering the audience's tear ducts.
The film starts with a brutal car accident, in which a teen-age boy, Bennett Brewer (Aaron Johnson), is killed. It then moves on to his family, a few months post-funeral. The alarm clock sounds, his mother Grace (Susan Sarandon) rolls over to turn it off, has a moment of realization - and begins to weep.
His father Allen (Pierce Brosnan) is also deeply shaken by his son's death, but sees his job as helping Grace through her grief. Left out of the equation is Ryan, their younger son, who is coping with feelings of his own, which he tries to stifle with recreational drugs.
All of their worlds are nudged off this axis of pain by the arrival of Rose (Carey Mulligan), who turns up pregnant on their doorstep. The baby, she tells them, belongs to Bennett - though she and he had barely started dating when they consummated their love. She has nowhere to go - and so Rose convinces the Brewers to let her move in.
The film then focuses on the various processes of discovery in the household: how the parents live on after the death of a child; how the girlfriend faces a future as a single mother, with a set of grandparents for her child she barely knows; how Allen and Grace find each other again after years of inattention to their marriage (including his philandering).
Yet The Greatest is a movie that manages to make real that sense of absence that an untimely death creates. Bennett is still a huge presence in the lives of all of these characters - and eventually they must discover that, to keep those memories alive, they must come together, despite a stubborn unwillingness to do so. What they share, ultimately, is greater than the barriers they feel - but only if they find a way to pool the memories, rather than hoard them.
Sarandon is like a raw nerve onscreen, her antennae on heightened alert for anything that might hit her wrong - or trigger her sense of loss. She's scarily canny, a woman in such pain that she distrusts anything that might soothe her.
Brosnan is equally good as the husband who holds his grief at arm's length in order to provide strength for his family. Ultimately, his performance is even more shattering than Sarandon's. Mulligan, by contrast, is understandably distant, a girl forced into a woman's world by several sets of circumstances that seem to overwhelm her. Yet she finds a sense of calm that has nothing to do with trying to achieve control.
That, ultimately, is what The Greatest is about: accepting the fact that you have little control of the world and letting life go on anyway. Feste has written and directed a smart, finely wrought tale that will have you choked up and nodding your head at the same time.
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