Review: Beginners, 2011, dir. Mike Mills

To a point, Beginners is somewhat opaque. The film doesn’t boast a complex narrative– even when it’s operating at full non-linear capacity– but the devices used to serve the story are, occasionally, perplexing. Parts of Beginners occur in the thoughts of its protagonist, Oliver (Ewan McGregor), who in his head contrasts the way the world and people inhabiting it look in the present (for the film, 2003) and in the past; through these musings the picture means to connect Oliver’s life with that of his parents’, and while the intent eventually grows clear it’s the presentation that’s somewhat roundabout. But even if Oliver considers things in an obtuse manner, the story unfolding outside of his head is still incredibly moving, charming, clever, and effectively romantic. If piercing our protagonist’s deepest thoughts is a challenge, at least falling for the film’s central tale is easy.

Oliver, we learn quickly, is recently orphaned. His mother died before the turn of the century, prompting his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), to come out of the closet after more than forty years of heterocentric living. Of course, in the present, Hal, too, has passed, so we only become acquainted with him in Oliver’s memories; Oliver’s current timeline pushes him toward with Anna (Mélanie Laurent), an actress, and as they set out to make a relationship together his unresolved and conflicted feelings toward his parents (and hers toward her own father) surface to present a roadblock to moving on and attaining a measure of happiness together.

Like many independently minded romantic comedies made outside the mores of studio formulas, Beginners is very much about putting two damaged people into a room together and developing a bond between them. Oliver and Anna both bear the weight of emotional baggage from their relationships with their parents, though the impact 0f their experiences varies. For Oliver, Hal’s shift in sexual orientation newly illuminates the childhood he spent watching his mother and father grow distant from one another, which is cathartic to a degree but also simply raises new troubles; for Anna, her connection to her suicidal father is simply overwhelming to the point where she can hardly even bring herself to answer the phone when he calls. Largely, Beginners‘ thesis suggests that the problems which arise in romances can be traced back to parentage, and maybe that’s where the film derives its title from.

But it’s also, as the title may imply, a film about literal new beginnings. For Hal, Beginners is about starting his life over as an elderly homosexual man; through flashbacks we see how the man utilizes his remaining years before he passes away from a battle with cancer. Hal quickly integrates himself into the local gay community and starts participating in letter writing, movie nights, and numerous other activities with people who understand him. As much as it’s a new world for him, Hal fits right in. Oliver, on the other hand, takes the deaths of his parents quite hard and nearly folds underneath the weight of his own mourning and the lingering questions that remain about life and happiness that he never got to ask, but for him the film is about how he changes himself in the wake of his losses. 

He doesn’t, however, spark that ultimate transformation of self on his own. Like many films of its genre, Beginners is about how men need the love of a good woman, or at least her sexual attention; Oliver seems perfectly content allowing himself to be characterized as a dull, lugubrious man until he meets the luminous, quirky Anna at a party and strikes up an initially casual relationship with her that swiftly becomes more serious. Anna represents the catalyst for Oliver’s change. Her emergence in his life signals an immediate shift in attitude from him, and before long after their first encounter we get to see him really laughing and smiling for the first time in the entire picture. Of course, he’s just as much of an influence on her; with each bearing personal parent issues, they’re a marred match made in heaven. So in that sense Beginners isn’t about the woman fixing a man but about two people fixing each other, which on paper sounds just a touch on the side of cliché and, more accurately, expected.

Fortunately, director Mike Mills approaches this angle with a fresh set of eyes, and never for a moment does Beginners feel hackneyed. If anything it’s simply being honest, because what else are romantic connections about other than two people making each other better in one fashion or another, but I think a lot of what makes Beginners succeed comes down to Mills’ cast. The performers here each seem to take their roles with the utmost degree of seriousness, not in a strictly dramatic sense– the film is quite funny apart from its more somber elements– but in the sense that everyone here shows the utmost respect to their characters. Oliver, for example, might be frustratingly, staunchly stuck in his own sadness, but McGregor’s portrayal of the man feels compelling and genuine and so the entire character works. No one here is just playing a part; the principals each feel like they’re bringing actual human experiences to life more than they’re simply acting (and they are, since the film is based on Mills’ own experiences with his father’s late-bloom homosexuality prior to his own passing). Plummer’s Oscar-nominated performance obviously pegs him as the actor to watch here, but that’s being unfair to Laurent, who yields a robust and deeply mature version of the maligned manic pixie dream girl archetype, and especially McGregor, who hasn’t been this good (or in a film this good) in years. Whether awards ceremonies think so or not, these are all performances to savor.

If Beginners is indulgently ponderous at times– and Oliver’s inner monologues about what happiness and the sun look like can be described at least as somewhat overdone– it makes up for it by treating its physical events with sincerity. Who cares that Oliver’s musings connect his present with his parents’ past in the most circuitous way possible?  That’s just who he is, in all earnestness, and that’s what makes Beginners special; in the space between his thoughts there’s a very real story unfolding about what it means to love and finding catharsis and solace in our intimate relationships. 

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9 thoughts on “Review: Beginners, 2011, dir. Mike Mills

  1. Great review.

    The one thing I never understood was the antagonism between Oliver and Hal’s lover, Andy. From the point-of-view of the audience, Andy would randomly be aggressive towards Oliver or make defensive statements–such as in the hospital when he states he can be in the room with them. It seemed like a chunk of their scenes together were left on the cutting room floor.

    Also, you forgot to mention the dog–who should be in the running for an Academy Award with the Jack Russell in “The Artist”.

    • My wife and I loved the dog. LOVED him. I think he matches up well with Snowy from Tintin, though I’ve yet to see The Artist and thus have no opinion.

      I think most of that antagonism you see is from Andy; Oliver seems pretty cool about the whole thing. Andy, on the other hand, acts defensive right out of the gate, and I imagine a lot of that has to do with feeling threatened at the prospect of not being accepted by Oliver as a part of Hal’s life. Oliver doesn’t really seem to care one way or another (until the end when they reconcile), but Andy perceives that Oliver doesn’t accept him or something along those lines. I felt like that could have been fleshed out a bit better, too, but in the end I overlooked it for the most part.

  2. I think the narrative structure can get a bit confusing at times and it gets in the way of the story but as you noted, such a sincere and authentic tribute to what it means to live life to the fullest. And damn, Melanie Laurent just about melted my heart in this movie 😉

    • Laurent and McGregor are perfect together. She’s picking her roles in American films very well so far. As for McGregor, like I said, he hasn’t been this good in ages. It’s a nice return to form.

      The structure is a tad tricky but what gets me is the “this is what X looked like in 1953” nonsense. After a while it gets somewhat tiresome; we understand what Oliver’s trying to get at here, but it’s just really, really top-heavy and non-linear thinking. Other than that the film’s a treat.

  3. “indulgently ponderous” Heh. You do have a way of nailing things down with words, Crump ol boy.

    This was a very good film, a very enjoyable film, I know it hit a lot of top ten lists an whatnot, but I didnt put it on mine…

    I think for me it felt TOO Indy. Kind of like they opened the “Indy” playbook and called a play. But aside from that, I think the directing and the flashbacks and the greeting card touches and all the flourishes like the subtitled dog were the best part of the film.

    I know it was realistic, but it almost felt too low key. I know that makes them more “real” or believeable or credible or whatever… but it doesnt always make for the best flick. All the characters were almost too restrained. It was a bit too low key for me to love it too much.

    Just my take. ::shrugs:: Good review as always Andrew.

    • It wouldn’t have hit my top ten if I’d seen it in time, either. But I did like it quite a bit. I get what you mean about the “indie” sensibility; hence name-dropping the manic pixie dream girl thing, which is a huge part of films of this sort.

      I think the reason this stands above similar films about lost young men learning, thanks to a romantic liaison with a beautiful young free-spirited woman, that they can revitalize their lives and find happiness and purpose and meaning is that it feels not “real” but “honest”, and I think there’s a difference between the two. That said, the film feels “real” to me in that I actually know a man who had a situation with one of his parents just like Oliver does with Hal. But it’s not the film’s “realism” that got me, it’s that it presents a heightened sort of reality with all of the “greeting card touches and flourishes” you astutely point out, and it does so in a way that doesn’t feel like mushy BS. There’s a genuine emotional core here.

      And some great performances. Having a trio of actors so on top of their game helps a lot.

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