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Beginners (A Movie Review)




Starring Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Mélanie Laurent, Goran Visnjic, Kai Lennox, Mary Page Keller, Keegan Boos, China Shavers, Melissa Tang, Amanda Payton, Luke Diliberto, Lou Taylor Pucci, Bambadjan Bamba, Hana Hwang and Samuel T. Ritter.

Screenplay by Mike Mills.

Directed by Mike Mills.

Distributed by Focus Features.  105 minutes.  Rated R.

Highly autobiographical films can be both a blessing and a curse.  The writer has extraordinary insight into and passion the subject and yet they have no distance or discretion – what seems vital to them can seem trivial to an audience.

Mike Mills’ Beginners strays into the positive areas much more frequently than the negative.  In the film, the writer/director, best known for the impressive indie Thumbsucker, shares his uniquely dysfunctional American family, and in doing so gives us a fascinating look behind the walls of a family’s life.

Mills’ parents were married – happily, by all accounts – for over 40 years.  Yet, after his mother died, his father came out – at age 75 – as a proud, happy and active gay man.  He lived the lifestyle for a few years before he too passed away.

Mills told me in a recent interview that the idea for the movie came to him when his father was dying of cancer.  He was having a conversation with him and had to ask why his father and mother had stayed together for so many years if he was gay.  His father assured him that he had always loved her.  Plus, they got married in the 1950s, when the homosexual lifestyle was much more taboo.  Therefore, the father explained to Mills that his mother had taken off her Jewish badge and he had taken off his gay badge.

The odd thing, Mills found, was that his father was more alive, involved and happy in the last few years of his life – when he could finally be himself – than he had ever been during his perfectly pleasant life as a husband and father.

Mills started writing a script on his relationship with his father during those last years of his life a mere five months after his father’s death.

A few years later, Beginners has arrived, and in many ways it is a small masterpiece.  It is melancholy and yet extremely funny, dour and yet hopeful, quiet and yet explosively joyous.

Beginners runs on two intertwined threads.  Both revolve around Oliver (Ewan McGregor), the fictionalized version of the writer/director.  Oliver is an artist who is rather closed-off emotionally.  The film shows Oliver learning to open up and let love in through two separate life-changing occurrences.  The first is – as discussed earlier – dealing with the coming out and subsequent illness of his father Hal, played with playful vigor and great joy by Christopher Plummer.  The other thread takes place six months after his father’s death, when Oliver meets a free-spirited but similarly neurotic French actress named Anna – a totally fictional character who is played with sexy-but-bruised abandon by actress Mélanie Laurent, best known in the US for her portrayal of Shoshanna in Quentin Tarentino’s Inglorious Basterds.

Actually, Oliver learns love in one other way, in and having little conversations with his late father’s Jack Russell Terrier.  Literally, the dog’s thoughts are shown as subtitles.  This kind of stunt could be painful in less talented hands, but it turns out to be charming and rather funny.  Of course it doesn’t hurt that the dog was incredibly cute and acted like a dog, not an acting dog.  As it is, the coming to terms of man and animal are just one more way that Oliver finally learns to embrace life.

These stories are weaved together seamlessly to create a sweet, touching and most importantly an earned epiphany.

The film begins and climaxes with a scene of the son setting off fireworks with his father’s new friends to celebrate the fleeting brilliance of life.  This film also pulls off the same spectacular effect.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2011 All rights reserved. Posted: June 3, 2011.

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