Justin H. Min and Lucy Boynton in "The Greatest Hits" walk on a city street with shops and red lanterns in the background.

Time-travel romance ‘The Greatest Hits’ gets it very nearly right

...except the ending

From left, Justin H. Min and Lucy Boynton in "The Greatest Hits."

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

From writer-director Ned Benson, melodic sci-fi romance The Greatest Hits is a tale of bittersweet nostalgia. The movie follows a young woman in mourning, Harriet (Lucy Boynton), who lives with a unique gift and curse: upon hearing certain songs from her past, she's able to briefly travel back in time, to specific moments when her boyfriend Max (David Corenswet) was still alive. This supernatural secret becomes difficult to manage when she falls for the quietly charming David (Justin H. Min), a man similarly in the throes of grief, whom she meets in group therapy. This leads to a meaningful tale of trying to move forward while still being shackled to the past. The resolution comes achingly close to sticking the landing.

The Greatest Hits builds to one of the most confounding betrayals of narrative and theme in recent memory, a conclusion made all the more frustrating by just how well its moving parts fit together in the meantime. Its performances are nuanced and powerful; the image is always visually appealing; and the genre elements, for the most part, don't overshadow the characters and their journeys. Yet it all feels undone by the time the credits roll, as though the movie can't quite figure out what it wants to say about living with the burden of grief—and living despite it.

Benson unfurls his sci-fi premise right from the opening scene, as former music producer Harriet sifts through a number of vinyl records before carefully choosing one to play. As the music builds, lens flare consumes the screen like a bout of synesthesia, the sound transporting her to a moment from her time with Max, which she associates with a given song. The logistics of this dreamlike setting are established quickly too: she passes out in the present, but remains in the past as long as the music continues. And while she can't seem to change long-term outcomes like Max's death, no matter how hard she tries, she can occasionally switch off the radio or record player in the past, and escape these memories early, rather than playing each scene out to its full conclusion.

However, while this all is new information to the audience—which Benson depicts clearly and economically—it isn't new to Harriet, whose bedroom walls are adorned with various sketched timelines and lists of rules that we never fully see. Max died nearly two years ago, and Harriet is now accustomed to this time-hopping, for which she has systems in place to ensure she only experiences this in private, like wearing headphones in public places to prevent sudden "episodes." It's as though nostalgia were an ailment from which she suffers. The metaphor is crystal clear even before the film tries to explain it in words: music is a powerful stimulus, capable of yanking you back to moments from your past, a sensation Benson makes entirely literal.

Justin H. Min and Lucy Boynton in "The Greatest Hits" stand looking at each other in a record shop.

Justin H. Min and Lucy Boynton in "The Greatest Hits."

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

As Harriet tries to figure out how to prevent Max's death—if she can prevent it at all—her meet-cute with David throws a wrench in her routine. She's grown comfortable with her new status quo, wherein the past is as real as the present, and she can't quite live for today. But even as she tries to give new romance a chance, the unlucky appearance of specific tracks takes her back to her life with Max at inopportune moments, as though his memory (or her guilt over finding new love) were preventing her from living again.

This setup is rife with emotional potential, and every filmmaking element works in tandem to make it tick. Cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon (a regular collaborator of Oldboy director Park Chan-wook) imbues the movie's Los Angeles setting with warmth and living, breathing texture, while imbuing each time-travel detour with a sense of livewire excitement through lensing that bends light and color in unpredictable ways.

All this visual pizzazz is grounded by Boynton's thoughtful performance. As Harriet, she moves about the world with an effervescent façade, but it feels like a distant echo of who the character might've been before Max's death—a version of her we never meet. Instead, we're introduced to a version of Harriet who carries the looming weight of Max's passing in distant, glassy-eyed moments of emotional disconnect, and in the lines on her face. It feels as though she's been crying just off screen.

Lucy Boynton in "The Greatest Hits" stands in a record shop.

In "The Greatest Hits," Lucy Boynton travels back in time whenever she hears certain songs.

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Min shoulders a similar burden as David, a man who's lost both his parents and now manages their antique shop while putting his own life on hold. He's tethered to the past as well, living amongst old trinkets and holding on to a phantom sense of "normal" that may never return. Compared to Harriet, David wears his grief deep down, concealed beneath a personable demeanor, a dynamic which Min balances with skillful grace. His voice is soothing as always (see also: his work in After Yang), but it occasionally breaks, betraying a hidden vulnerability.

But while Min and Boynton embody three-dimensional characters plagued by difficult circumstances, Corenswet's mission (as Max) is, at once, simpler on the surface while being infinitely complex underneath. We never get to know him beyond Harriet's fleeting memories, so the hunky Superman-to-be is tasked with playing an alluring, jovial version of Max at a distance, idealized through Harriet's nostalgia, while hinting at deeper layers to which we no longer have access.

Lucy Boynton and David Corenswet sit close together in "The Greatest Hits."

From left, Lucy Boynton and David Corenswet in "The Greatest Hits."

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

All three performers walk narrow tightropes as the plot unfolds, and Harriet begins confronting the reality of needing to live in the present if she has any shot at a future. However, when it comes time for the movie to reckon with this underlying theme, its thus-far understated sci-fi premise suddenly starts to subsume its romantic drama. When it ought to focus on its volatile emotional core, The Greatest Hits becomes inexplicably bogged down by the implications of time travel late into its 104-minute runtime.

In the process, it presents an escape hatch to all its questions about confronting the ugly, overwhelming nature of grief, through a final act that's entirely incongruous with the story Benson seems to be telling. It feels like an emotional cop-out, leaving an especially sour taste thanks to the immensely fine-tuned performances it draws from its leading trio, which, by the end, can't help but feel for naught. Sometimes, a film is only as good as its ending, no matter what else it gets right.

Lucy Boynton and Justin H. Min in "The Greatest Hits" stand with their foreheads together, with headphones around their necks.

In "The Greatest Hits," Lucy Boynton (left) and Justin H. Min meet and begin a romance as both are grieving loved ones.

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Published on April 12, 2024

Words by Siddhant Adlakha

Siddhant Adlakha is a critic and filmmaker from Mumbai, though he now lives in New York City. They're more similar than you'd think. Find him at @SiddhantAdlakha on Twitter