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.