Sunday, November 27, 2011

Beginners (Mike Mills, 2011)

As precious as it can be, Mike Mills' Beginners overcomes its occasional indie accoutrements—twee, arty montages à la Wes Anderson abound—to tell a moving story about one man's total emotional upheaval and his attempt to put his life back in order. Based on Mills' own life experiences, Beginners sidesteps as many clichés as it embraces, moving beyond its quirks to get at the real impacts of life's oddities and even avoiding the pitfall of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

Like Mills, Oliver (Ewan McGregor) finds himself in a painful spot in the early 2000s. After his mother's death, his father, then 75 years old, came out as gay. Four years later, he died of cancer. Mills fractures the timeline of events so that we receive this information at the start and get constant flashbacks both to Hal's (Christopher Plummer) new life and to Oliver's reexaminations of his childhood in the wake of his father's outing as he puts the pieces together.

The beneficial side effect of this structure is that we get to see Plummer work throughout instead of relegating him solely to the first half. Plummer, at 81, is half a decade older than the character he plays, yet he looks a decade younger. We almost never see Hal not hooked up to a breathing tube or a hospital bed, but he bursts with energy. Plummer intuits the character's mental state, his body falling apart just when he's never felt more whole and alive. Making up for a life not lived, Hal throws himself into queer culture, joining not only gay pride parades and hitting up gay bars but attending gay book and film clubs.  So out of the loop with the LGBT community, Hal assumes other people are as clueless as him and amusingly projects his ignorance onto his son. Hal condescendingly explains that Harvey Milk was the first gay elected official or that the rainbow flag symbolizes gay pride and generally ignores his son's protests that he already knows these things.

Mills contrasts this vision of a kind, flirtatious, electrified old man to a childhood defined by Hal's emotional and physical absence and his mother's quiet acts of rebellion to generate the passion never shown to her. Plummer steals the film, but Mary Page Keller deserves recognition as well as Georgia. The look of muted caged agitation and anguish on her face is tragic, and her stabs of acting out make it clear to her child that something is wrong even as the boy could never guess the true reason for his mom's disconnect and displaced emotions. Believing she could "fix" Hal by marrying him, Georgia only found herself trapped in the same fabrication Hal had to build around his real self. Keller could have played Georgia's whimsical, even obnoxious actions for mere oddity, but she never once fails to express the pain and social imprisonment that defines her pathetic existence.

As Oliver mulls over these memories, we see the split between his take on his father's revelation and Hal's. Oliver sees how the whole family got caught up in Hal's lie, leaving his mother erratic and unloved and preventing a deep connection between himself and his father until late in life. But for Hal, his earnest, if tepid, acceptance of his heteronormative front was a denial of the real man for the sake of his wife and child. Oliver feels pangs of defensiveness with his father's boyfriends, not repulsed by their sexuality but jealous of the doting love Hal shows them, an affection he never expressed for Georgia or him.

Less striking and original is the other half of the film, following Oliver as he puts his life back together with the help of a French actress named Anna (Mélanie Laurent), whom he meets at a Halloween party. That scene is perhaps the highlight of their whole relationship, with Oliver trying to mask his still-fresh mourning by dressing as Sigmund Freud and "analyzing" the other party guests while Anna communicates with him via notepad as he voice is shot from laryngitis. McGregor and Laurent never fully match the level of chemistry that arcs between them here, nor do they make the inevitable scenes of mutual relationship doubt feel genuine. But Laurent, as revelatory a discovery in Inlgourious Basterds as Christoph Waltz, manages to overcome the dangerously limiting part Anna threatens to be, negating her potential "perfect woman" status with an insecurity and caution evident in her relationship with Oliver from the start. I've seen some dismiss Beginners as formulaic, but while it may end on a conventional note, Mills and his actors don't get there by the usual route.

As a coming to terms with his father's identity and a belated sense of regret that the man had so little time to be himself, Beginners is a beautiful making of amends. As a story of a depressed son mentally recovering through a restorative romance, it dangerously flirts with staleness. But when Mills, McGregor and Laurent can eke sorrow from a cutely arranged scene of the two lovers playacting a conversation between Anna and her manipulative father, they quickly prove their ability to toe that line without falling into mediocrity. Complete with the achingly human performances by Keller and Plummer, Beginners is an elegiac but affirming tribute to our ability to find ourselves at any time in life, and of the worthiness of doing so even if only for the last fleeting moments of one's existence.


  1. Good review. Beginners reminded me that romance in the movies didn't have to be a vacuous story based on sugar-coated fairy tales. A really good, worthwhile film.

  2. the fresh tenderness we all need to see in our lives, the innocence of heart not seen in mania feeding movies for the last 20 years - a jewel for the heart & best movie of 2011