MOVIE REVIEW: Beginners
Starring Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Mélanie Laurent
The personal aspects of life become historical in Beginners, a sublime comic-romance woven together from writer/director Mike Mills’ own real-life experiences with his father, a museum curator who came out of the closet at the age of 75 only to die of cancer five years later. Mills’ fictional stand-in is Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a 38-year old successful graphic designer grappling with the recent loss of his dad Hal (Christopher Plummer) and a burgeoning romance with French actress Anna (Melanie Laurent). These experiences converge to create a surreal overlap of experiences, constructed by past memories, historical facts, and whimsical bits of fantasy. The autobiographical nature of the film allows Mills to examine the characters conflicts and joys, pain and happiness in interesting ways.
Set in 2003, Beginners unabashedly connects emotions and themes to a specific time period in Oliver’s life, a post 9/11 landscape that walks the line between traumatic and hopeful. Clever uses of voice-over narration give Oliver a platform to speak his engaging mind to the audience, drifting from political allegory to deeply personal feelings about his father. The sly opening monologue introduces this aesthetic, as Oliver fruitlessly tries to remember the exact details surrounding his father’s sudden revelation of newfound identity. Oliver’s process of remembrance is messy, fractured by past judgments but connected by a growing sense of acceptance. In turn, Beginners becomes an oral history for a family constantly evolving past the surface.
Mourning Hal naturally brings up thoughts from Oliver’s childhood, including time spent with his dynamic mother Georgia (Mary Page Keller). During these scenes, Hal is often absent, almost faceless in Oliver’s pre-teen landscape. The opposite is true in the present day, with Georgia now deceased and Hal the remaining familial influence in Oliver's life. As a result, Mills creates a crash of conflicting emotions within Oliver, something that only heightens when he meets Anna at a costume party. Their first dalliance is stunningly simple and wonderfully realized, furthering the importance of surfaces and subtext in each of our lasting relationships.
Much of the visual virtuosity in Beginners owes a lot to the cinema of French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, but Mills manages to sustain a certain sincerity that avoids parody.This success has everything to do with the great performances by McGregor and Plummer, who share a striking chemistry that reveals a lifetime’s worth of regret, doubt, and love in a simple moment of silence. Even when Oliver’s smart-as-a-whip Jack Russell terrier speaks to him via subtitles, the device feels connected to the film’s outlook on emotional connection rather than gimmicky.
Eventually, Beginners stumbles into the familiar genre conventions each Romantic Comedy experiences (break-ups, reversals, confessions), growing overtly precious just to advance the story. Still, these are three-dimensional people we care about, and by the time Oliver mentally experiences one last slideshow of memories, Mills connects his unique consciousness with a historical awareness, and vice-a-versa. No matter the romantic outcome, we feel like these characters have evolved, finding new life in the details. With the suffocating summer doldrums of Hollywood constantly recycling, Beginners offers us a chance to breath some fresh air.