Seeing scores of films every year, a measure of cynicism creeps in. It’s not hard for the eyes to go glossy when seeing the umpteenth romantic comedy of the year that follows some screenwriting 101 formula and pits two adorable young stars against each other in a love/hate/love relationship.
However, just when it seems all romantic movies have gone to pot and I’m on the verge of succumbing to looking at films through jaded glasses, there comes a film like Beginners. A deeply personal tale from writer/director Mike Mills, the semi-autobiographical story is split into two distinct but intertwined narratives.
At 75, Hal (Christopher Plummer) has lost his wife and feels free enough to finally come out of the closet; having spent 40-plus years in a loving marriage but one that denied him his true sexuality. His son Oliver (Ewan McGregor), blindsided by this revelation, looks to his memories in search of reconciling the way he looks at his family, all the while doing his best to embrace Hal’s newfound independence and passion.
The second story concerns Oliver dealing with life following his father’s passing (you learn this in the opening minutes, it’s not a spoiler). He meets a French actress named Anna (Mélanie Laurent) and rather than submarine the relationship as he’s done in the past, is inspired by his father’s attitude of never giving up on life.
The beauty of Beginners lies in how Mills weaves these stories together. It’s reminiscent of a more dramatic (500) Days of Summer but with both stories moving along together linearly for the most part. The honesty and emotion seem to follow through so wonderfully, no doubt helped by the process of shooting each segment separately and in continuity – so as to allow the actors a chance to discover their journey as organically as possible.
Each of the leading cast members deliver some of their best work. Plummer superbly balances the character with a newfound zest for life and the calm wisdom of his years. McGregor exhibits a subtlety and earnest melancholy that draws the audience in from the start and never lets go. Then there’s Laurent, best known to American audiences for her excellent turn as the theater owner in Inglourious Basterds (she learned a bit of English for that role and has only improved since then). Quite simply, she’s stunning here; drawing not only McGregor into her web but the audience as well.
And not to be outdone by his human counterparts, a Jack Russell terrier by the name of Cosmo got a few brown spots painted on him and portrays Hal’s dog, Arthur. Following Hal’s passing, Arthur comes to be Oliver’s and the interplay between the two is priceless. As Oliver seeks guidance in coping with the loss of his father and the introduction of Anna, Arthur comes to the rescue – returning his questions with some witty subtitled answers. No, this isn’t meant to show that Arthur himself is talking back to Oliver, more like Oliver is using him as a sounding board to listen to his own conscience. However, the end result is an engaging repartee and makes even a slightly jaded curmudgeon like myself grin ear to ear.
Much of the actors’ success lies in Mills’ script and direction. He doesn’t fall prey to the notion of telling the audience everything that’s going on. What isn’t in the script is given to us via the images on-screen; the silent moments speak volumes, eye contact between actors is immediately understandable, and before one knows it, you’re fully immersed in Oliver’s world.
This is exemplified best when Oliver and Anna meet. He’s dragged to a costume party, doing a bad job of expressing how much he doesn’t want to be there. That is, until he meets Anna. She’s suffering from laryngitis and must communicate with him via pad and paper, but everything we need to know is said in their body language and in their eyes. It’s mesmerizing to see them make a connection with only his voice to break the silence and is perhaps the most romantic meet-cute I’ve ever seen.
From that point on, we watch as Oliver attempts to navigate this new relationship, and we’re shown how Hal’s final years had a significant impact on his son’ ability to cope with the notion of letting someone into his life.
That doesn’t mean the film is without faults, however. Rather than simply show us Hal finally expressing himself as a gay man, Mills allows Hal’s new partner (Goran Visnijc) to over-react to Oliver at every turn, expecting him to disapprove of his father’s lifestyle. Oliver never shows any hint of wanting to question his father for being who he is, and is nothing but supportive. However, as Visnijc always seems to be expecting such a reaction, it leads one to believe that either there was a person in Mills’ father’s life who was like him and a script revision was in order, or Mills himself questioned things … and a script revision was in order. Nearly every other character motivation is spot on and feels organic and honest, it’s a shame this one wasn’t dealt with prior to final cut.
Still, that’s merely the one complaint I can come up with and for anyone who’s ever dealt with loss or love, there’s bound to be something in Beginners that makes a connection and it’s one of the few must see films of 2011. I implore people to go out and support this independent film, as this is the kind of work that deserves a wider release than it’s getting and is a welcome stopgap in the constant flow of insipid, lowest common denominator, relationship films.
Beginners opened in limited release on June 3, 2011.