Beginners is a film based on director Mike Mills’ experiences with his father coming out of the closet as an elderly man. It stars Ewan McGregor as Oliver, who at the start of the film is dealing with the death of his father Hal (Christopher Plummer.) As Oliver is dealing with the responsibilities of closing his father’s affairs, he meets Anna (Mélanie Laurent, Inglorious Basterds.) The two begin a casual relationship and Oliver quickly falls in love with her. The romance is intercut with flashbacks of Oliver’s childhood relationships with both of his parents and his adult relationship with his father. After Oliver’s mother died, his father came out of the closet, and we see how Hal embraced and enjoyed his true nature at the end of his life. As the film progresses, we see how Oliver’s parents’ relationship affects and shapes his own relationship with Anna; and why he is so cautious to commit.
One of my favorite aspects of the film is its unique visual narration. Much of the film is narrated by Oliver and is based on his memories and thought processes. We are frequently shown a slideshow of images and history as a representation of his memory, which I loved. Oliver is obviously conscious of history and the differences among generations. He discusses the cultural climate and norms of his parents’ relationship, and contrasts it to that of his own relationship in the present (2003.) When Oliver meets Anna at a costume party, it is clearly no mistake that he is dressed as Sigmund Freud. I’m not going to bore you (or myself) with any detailed pseudo-psycho-analysis, but it is obvious a lot of aspects of Oliver’s relationship with Anna mirror his own mother. Another unconventional aspect of the film is the character of Arthur, Hal’s dog. After Hal passes, Arthur is under Oliver’s care and takes him everywhere he goes. At several points in the movie Oliver speaks to Arthur, who replies in subtitles; there is no explanation for this, which I also loved.
Ewan McGregor carries the film as the emotional anchor. He does a great job at conveying Oliver’s uncertainty of love and plays a good straight man of sorts to Plummer. Mélanie Laurent plays the role of “free-spirited love interest” well enough without flying off the handle and becoming farce, (If you haven’t seen Inglorious Basterds, I would recommend it simply for Laurent’s role.) Christopher Plummer steals the show, which is essential for the role he portrays. Even as Hal knowingly faces a death of cancer, we see him living a life full of joy. It’s invigorating to see a character that doesn’t let old age or cancer stand in the way of his happiness.
The only drawback of the film is Oliver and Anna’s relationship, surprisingly. After a while I found myself bored with the pair and would much rather see some more father/son interaction. Though it’s a minor setback, and doesn’t make their love story any less interesting. The greatest part of this particular love story however, is its reliance on family and the way that they shape one’s beliefs, expectations and fears of love. Beginners is a story about a boy and a girl, certainly; but it is more importantly a love letter to fathers (and to a lesser degree, mothers): fictional and real.
Final Grade: B+