Mark Reviews Movies

Beginners

BEGINNERS

3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Mike Mills

Cast: Ewan McGregor, Mélanie Laurent, Christopher Plummer, Goran Visnjic, Kai Lennox, Mary Page Keller, Keegan Boos, China Shavers

MPAA Rating: R (for language and some sexual content)

Running Time: 1:45

Release Date: 6/3/11 (limited); 6/10/11 (wider)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | June 9, 2011

At 75, the father comes out of the closet, gets a boyfriend, and begins having parties and meetings with gay rights groups that he used to meet with in secret. He also learns that he has cancer. At 38, the son learns that he is only as alone as he will allow himself to be, meets a woman, and starts realizing that his past relationships failed because he always figured they would. He also discovers that the woman he's begun dating will be leaving Los Angeles for an audition in New York that will be the first stop in the travelling career of an actress.

After summing it up as such, the title, like a lot of the film, seems like stating the obvious, but with Beginners, writer/director Mike Mills challenges the notion of his material's thematic simplicity by implementing the same process in which his central character indulges. They are both adept at compartmentalizing.

Certain words and phrases bring to mind visual gags, which Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a graphic artist working on a representation of the history of sadness for an epic set CD liner notes, turns into sketches. He sees the world in images, like when he recalls important years of his life and the lives of loved ones through flashes of period photographs of the sun, the stars, the President of the United States, people playing, pets, cars, couples kissing, faces expressing emotions. A single gesture from a person brings to mind an entire summation of a relationship with someone else, and seeing the back of an elderly man who looks like his father causes the emotions of his recent death to flood back.

The story is triggered by illness, death, and loneliness, but, in a simple turnaround, the film is not about these things. Instead, Mills uses the death of Oliver's father Hal (Christopher Plummer) as a way to explore how Oliver changes as a result of it—and not even the actual loss, as such, but in the recollection of lives lived with a purpose.

It begins with Oliver sorting through his father's belongings—dumping medication into the toilet, packing things into boxes, and leaving a massive pile of garbage bags for collection outside. What's left, after the fact, is Hal's dog Arthur, a Jack Russell terrier to whom Oliver begins speaking and who, after a while, starts talking back in subtitles that his new owner slowly begins to understand. The dog cannot be left alone for any period of time, barking and whining until someone it recognizes returns, so Oliver takes it everywhere with him.

His friends at work invite him to a costume party, where he goes dressed as Sigmund Freud and winds up listening to people's problems as they lie on a couch. A woman, whose name he finds out much later is Anna (Mélanie Laurent), plops down to talk with him, though, as she has laryngitis, it's more like pantomiming and writing to him. She asks why he's at a party if he's sad, and he wonders how she knew. She draws him a set of eyes. He gives her his phone number, and a few minutes later on his way to the car to go home, she calls, pressing buttons to beep that, yes, she would like to do something with him right now.

Their relationship blossoms in sweet ways that are emotionally authentic and satisfying. It's all about dropping their inhibitions to be sincere and silly with one another. After playing a game in which Oliver drives in the direction Anna points (an amusement from his childhood), they return to the hotel room, where she suggests they just sleep in the same bed together—an idea which he happily accepts. Later Anna confirms that her own father committed suicide. She is haunted by something she neglected to say or do every time a phone rings for her.

On the lighter side, they roller-skate back to Anna's hotel after being kicked out of the rink for bringing the dog inside. When Oliver's friend from work Elliot (Kai Lennox) shows him the spontaneous thrill of spray-painting graffiti around town (Oliver leaves trivia to encourage "historical consciousness," in line with his remembrances of old photographs), he passes on the playful vandalism to try to impress Anna. "You are," is her heart-melting response. Mills breaks down the excitement of a new, promising relationship to its essence in these vignettes, and their growing connection is affecting on its own merits.

Juxtaposed throughout Oliver and Anna's story are memories of Hal and, to a lesser extent, his mother Georgia (Mary Page Keller), who died about five years before his father. From her, he picked up little quirks, like being good at playing dead after a mock shooting from fingers in the shape of a gun (a game Anna plays, too), and bigger fears. He remembers how she reacted when Hal would give her compulsory pecks on the lips in farewell—the look of one who knows something is missing. This is the eventual way of things in love, he must grow up supposing—disappointment and regret.

Of course, Hal's secret (not a secret to Georgia, it turns out, though she believed she could change her husband—there was a lot of that kind of thinking in their day) explains a lot, and Oliver—though shocked at the news when he first received it—accepts it outright. There's no reason not to when Hal is the happiest Oliver has ever seen him, relaxing with his new boyfriend Andy (Goran Visnjic) and finally communicating with his son. He is even gracious to the doctor when hospice is put forward as the most viable option for him (Plummer's performance is skillfully nuanced in these details).

That moment of sincere appreciation in the face of inevitable devastation is one that is repeated throughout the film. Beginners, told from the perspective of a man who has come to distinguish the former from the latter, is joyous in the places we're accustomed to misery.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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