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Beginners (2011)

June 9, 2011

written by: Mike Mills
produced by: Miranda de Pencier, Lars Knudsen, Leslie Urdang, Jay Van Joy & Dean Vanech
directed by: Mike Mills
rated R (for language and some sexual content)
105 min
U.S. release date: June 3, 2011 & June 10, 2011 (limited)
“Beginners” is that rare dramedy that will surprise you with its delightful creativity, its whimsical humor, and touching sentiment. It comes across a bit too light and sweet, but it earns it genuinely. It really is a discovery, something I look forward to in moviegoing, yet an experience that rarely occurs.  It’s a reward you get when you open yourself up to the possibility that you will be exposed to something new and different at the movies. I knew going in that it was about a relationship between a father and a son, but that’s about it. I’m glad I’d forgotten the other details from the trailer, making it quite a treat to see a movie slowly reveal its intelligent mind and tender heart.
As the film quietly opens, we are introduced to thirty-eight year-old graphic artist, Oliver Fields (Ewan McGregor) as he busily (and reflectively) cleans a Los Angeles home. We learn that the home belonged to his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), who had recently died of lung cancer. His father left Oliver his adorable Jack Russell terrier, Arthur (Cosmo), who occasionally communicates to him with subtitles. It was only five years ago, at the age of 75, that Hal had come out of the closet after the death of Oliver’s mother (Mary Page Keller) and decided to fully embrace the man he had hidden during forty years of marriage. Oliver had to get used to this new father of his. Hal had hit the dating scene, became active in Gay Rights activities, and even formed a relationship with Andy (Goran Visnjic), a man close to Oliver’s age. The whole time, Oliver was right there with Hal, understandably confused yet accepting, as he experienced this newness.
 Now that Hal is gone, Oliver still finds himself examining how all this has affected him, especially how he approaches (and maintains) relationships. Such reflection is triggered as Oliver meets an engaging mysterious French actress at a Halloween party, who is in town for a film shoot. Her name is Anna (Mélanie Laurent), whom Oliver finds irreverent, spontaneous, and vibrant. While they are seemingly perfect for each other, they both have commitment issues that prevent them from truly embracing what they could have together.

Writer/director Mike Mills had the same bomb dropped on him by his father at the same age as Oliver. And like Oliver, he was left to ponder what his parent’s love was all about. Did it ever exist? Was it a front for society or for him? It certainly plays a role in how Oliver views his relationship with Anna, and even how he sees his place in life. At such a late stage in his life, Oliver’s father finally celebrated who he really was, good or bad. Due to his age and natural hesitancy, Hal was somewhat tentative at first, but he soon found joy in being accepted, even if it came with the realization that Andy isn’t monogamous. Hal sees this reality through a wise lens, knowing that love comes with its own pros and cons, whereas Oliver is still wrestling with that.
The three main performances here are refreshing, bold and mesmerizing. Anyone who had any doubt about McGregor’s range, should find here what genuine talent he has. The role requires him to evoke a palpable sadness to a man deep in thought (perhaps too much in thought) , as well as an artist who seeks catharsis in his work. McGregor makes wonderfully nuanced choices, and gets a helping hand from Mills (literally, it’s the director’s hand you see drawing when Oliver is working on his art). There’s a needed emotional openness to McGregor’s acting here that easily connects the audience to Oliver. 

As Anna, the fantastic Laurent (the heart of “Inglorious Basterds”) is a gem. When we first meet her at the party, Anna has laryngitis and it is through Laurent’s wordless expressiveness that we fall for her. Once she start talking, Laurent brings the right balance of reserve and spark to the role, confirming why Oliver is smitten. Unlike Oliver and Hal, the character of Anna isn’t adapted from real life, but I’d wager that she is an amalgam of past relationships Mills has had. Her role just seems too life-like to be conjured, but better yet, she serves a purpose in Oliver’s life. Both actors convey a convincing on-screen chemistry, making it a delight to watch them experience what we all go through: doubt, fear, joy, and failure.                

But, it’s the great Christopher Plummer who owns this movie. It becomes clear in the way he responds to situations or how he observes environments. Plummer all but disappears in this absorbing role. It’s be a challenge to find any other actor his age that could brazenly embrace this character without coming off cartoonish or insulting. There’s a purity and boldness to his depiction that is contagious. Because of Hal, we root for Oliver to take a chance on love, regardless of who he thinks he is. It’s award-worthy acting from a gentlemen who has consistently delivered for decades.           
With an inventive editing and storytelling style, Mills (2005’s “Thumbsucker” was his feature debut) delivers an irresistable sophomore film. He effortlessly finds both the humor and honesty in the lives of these men and that’s probably because he’s lived it. It’s proof that “writing what you know” can result in some great work.


While Mills keeps the audience involved with the captivating narrative he employs, there are some repeated quirks, unfortunately. At times, we see some of the same twee moments in the romance between Oliver and Anna, giving their story one too many cutesy bits. Those moments don’t take us out of the story since we’ve already committed, but they just come across as unnecessary. Regardless, it is fascinating to see how Mills uses timelines to impact specific moments, awakening key memories for Oliver to draw from. In doing so, Mills accurately portrays how random and yet subconsciously aware the mind can work.
It’s uncertain what people will make of this film, as it is a tough one to market. It’s not an outright comedy but there are some hilarious moments. It’s not just a tear-jerker or a message movie, although both are there for the taking. Maybe it will be known as that movie where the Septuagenarian father comes out and that cute little dog talks. Even if  fans come seeking the latest work from these actors, they will not be disappointed. Whatever brings you to “Beginners”, you will be grateful you saw it. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable departure that may potentially find you contemplating how you respond to those unpredictable and unplanned moments in life.
RATING: ****            
9 Comments leave one →
  1. Lauri permalink
    July 6, 2011 10:04 pm

    I finally saw Beginners this past weekend. I left the theater feeling perplexed, asking myself “Why didn’t I like this movie as much as I should have?” I think for me, the sum of the parts (which were wonderful) did not equate to a great movie. The acting was fabulous. The characters were endearing. The story was both funny and poignant (I cried at the end). Maybe it was the meandering storytelling that was a bit off-putting for me. There was a lack of flow. I would recommend this movie for everything I did like, since perhaps others wouldn’t mind Mills way of telling the story.

    • David J. Fowlie permalink*
      July 6, 2011 10:42 pm

      I guess I look at it this way: if it wasn’t for Mills imaginative and unique method of storytelling, then it would just consist of all those great elements which you refer to. But since it does have his approach, it adds (for me, at least) something different….and more.


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