Sunday, December 18, 2011
Mike Mills’ Beginners is a melancholy film about pain and sadness and the ways people have of holding themselves back. For all that there is still a lot of joy in the film, as well as a message about what it might take to be happy.
Oliver Fields (Ewan MacGregor) is a graphic artist who expresses himself best through his sketches. The film bounces back and forth in time, mostly between the film’s present day 2003, where Oliver becomes involved with a French actress named Anna (Melanie Laurent), and an earlier time where he is taking care of his terminally-ill father Hal (Christopher Plummer). Adding a further level of emotional trauma to Oliver’s situation is that Hal has come out of the closet at 75, after forty-four years of marriage. Hal really commits to the gay lifestyle too, trying to make up for lost time in what little he has left. He starts dating a younger man, joining gay social clubs, and becoming active in gay causes.
If that all sounds like an unbearably twee indie premise, well, you’re not totally wrong, although the film manages to keep itself grounded largely through the gravitas of Christopher Plummer. Interestingly, it’s the Anna half of the movie that is more problematic. The initial meet-cute between Oliver and Anna is ridiculously precocious. They meet at a costume party where he’s dressed as Freud and she’s dressed as Charlie Chaplin to cover for laryngitis. Laurent is not nearly as good in this film as she was as Shoshanna in Inglourious Basterds, but to be fair she is not given much to do here except alternately laugh and cry.
Essentially, the film is just about Oliver learning to apply the lessons of his father’s late-life renaissance, instead of repeating the mistakes his parents made. The film makes this point a little obviously at times, with flashbacks to Oliver’s difficult relationship to his mother, a woman he realizes in retrospect was obviously wounded by knowing the truth about her husband.
Beginners is a small film, and a quiet one, except when it rather unnecessarily beats you over the head with some political point. Without the extremely capable performances of MacGregor and Plummer it would be extremely slight; as is, it is just pleasant enough to work.
Oh, and there’s a dog that talks, at least in subtitles. It feels like I should mention that.