July 15, 2011 § Leave a comment
Written and Directed by Mike Mills
Starring Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Melanie Laurent and Goran Visnjic
Cinema fancies itself an affirmation of all things human and natural- violence, death, humor, sadness, elation, randomness, grandiosity, imagination, spiritual, supernatural, etcetera. Often times we view it as a concise affirmation of one of these many things. Beginners is an affirmation of love and partnership.
Based on writer-director Mike Mills’ own experiences with his 75 year old father coming out of the closet, Beginners is a small film about small moments that make up the grandness of life. McGregor is Oliver, a struggling album cover artist who is a lost soul raised by lost souls. He shows us things that give us a vague notion of what his life has been like through the context of popular history as he explains himself. He then explains that his 78 year old father has just come out of the closet, complimented by scenes of Oliver as a child with his free spirited mother who does everything she can to make up for a marriage that lacks passion. And thus we follow him as he explores his entire life through the context of some amazingly complicated changes that occur overnight. The kinds of changes that don’t affect where you live, what you wear, your income or your beliefs, but force you to examine how you feel.
That’s a heady description, but I believe it to be apt when trying to give context to an examination of the film ‘Beginners’, a gorgeously potent, understated, simple and emotionally truthful movie about every day people and every day things. Ewan McGregor is phenomenal as the lost son of a lost man who discovers through his dying father the joy of taking a chance in life and embracing who you are versus who you thought you were meant to be. The film is full of romance, with both straight and gay characters and while some aspects of the film do give the sense of a fairy tale world in which every moment, gesture, look and sigh holds deeply romantic meaning, it is nonetheless honest and visceral.
Last year we got the movie ‘Blue Valentine’, a tale of two lovers who are thrust into each other’s lives, for better or worse and ultimately suffer from their devotion to one another in an ultra low-budget, bare bones production that offered gritty realism in its depiction of an imperfect romance. I submit that if ‘Blue Valentine’ is the crushing truth of life’s disappointments, the ugly stepchild of romance, then ‘Beginners’ is the charmed sibling of that story. We watch as Ewan McGregor traipses aimlessly through life in the aftermath of his father’s demise from cancer, where he almost immediately meets Anna, a wandering actress who goes where the jobs are, staying in a hotel room in Los Angeles. She understands his pain, he lets her into his somewhat tortured existence. They learn that they compliment each other in many ways, sharing some of the same flaws as well.
This is used as an allegory to McGregor’s father, played by Christopher Plummer, a man in the twilight of his life who is in the dawn of an out of the closet gay life style. Where McGregor treads too cautiously and is overwhelmed by romance, Plummer is exhilarated by the freedom admitting his desire has offered him. Plummer is magnificent as a man simply too old to fully connect with the youth he never had, but too excited and enthusiastic to not bother trying. He begins a relationship with a flaky younger man (Goran Vijsnic) whom McGregor does not approve of, but who’s youthful exuberance compliments Plummer’s limited energy due to age. This mirror’s Laurent’s flighty nature as she zips around between jobs.
McGregor and Laurent are perfect. They exude effortless charm and attraction, connoting budding romance at any age, while maintaining their awkward, self-exiled distant natures, neither one comfortable in their own skin, leading to inevitable romantic hardships. As Plummer grows more comfortable while waiting to die, McGregor and Laurent struggle in the sunshine of youth to embrace the good in their lives.
Director Mike Mills is married to fellow artist and film maker Miranda July, creator of the belovedly quirky indie new-classic “Me, You and Everyone We Know”, a similar film about lost souls who find each other despite their best efforts and discover the power of love in their own ways. Mills previously directed a more under the radar indie coming of age tale called Thumbsucker, about a boy growing up in suburbia. Mills’ artistic and personal background lends credence to McGregor’s character’s struggles as an artist, as well as, presumably, his relationship with his recently outed father. Mills’ artistic background also aides in the visual potency of his film, with many beautiful static shots of artifacts and pictures, people’s faces as McGregor’s character narrates his life and describes moments. This is somewhat reminiscent of July’s own deeply personal style.
Beginners is hopeful, sad, funny, thoughtful and above all visceral. Writer-director Mike Mills has let us into these people’s personal bubbles and shared their discomfort and sense of discovery with us as they transition between stages in their lives. This is certainly a kin to films like ‘Greenberg’, ‘High Fidelity’ the aforementioned ‘Blue Valentine’ and other small romantic dramedies which explore the human condition through the context of love’s complications.
I won’t claim it breaks new ground in this sub genre, but I will say that it is effortlessly charming and touching. A very satisfying film going experience that adds value and credibility to the perpetuity and need for fictional romance.