Directer Mike Mills has created a serenely meditative, powerful and yet at times raucously funny comedy/drama that explores the travails of love, confusion, the legacy of one’s parents and the ability to accept and/or escape them. Actor Ewan McGregor (last seen in 2010’s criminally under-appreciated thriller ‘The Ghost Writer’) plays Oliver, a 40-something introspective graphic designer plagued by the doldrums of his loneliness; constantly craving a female foil to his playfully romantic whit and yet consistently sabotaging his own relationships via a self-destructive fear of buyer’s remorse. The only roadmap from which he can extract his own romantic trajectory is the highly dysfunctional model left by his mother (now-deceased) and father (played by the exquisite Christopher Plummer), who announces his homosexuality to Oliver as a 75 year-old man at the time of his mother’s death. Existing as aggregate compilation of Oliver’s childhood, his relationship with his newly out-of-the-closet father and an attempt at love with Anna (French actress Melanie Laurent, ‘Inglorious Basterds’), ‘Beginners’ revels in the cosmic bliss of repetition echoing across generations, both unknowing and otherwise.
As featured briefly in the trailer above, much of the internal dialogue of Oliver’s melancholiness is exposed through his dog, a Jack Russell terrier inherited from his late father Hal. The dog, who communicates with Oliver silently via on-screen text (it’s never revealed whether it’s actually the dog talking or just Oliver’s psyche), serves as both a friend and sounding board amidst the uncertainty of Oliver’s newfound relationship with actress Anna and also as a concrete chronological connection to the time period revisted often throughout the film, at which point Hal was attempting to carry-on as usual while hiding his terminal lung cancer from his lover Andy and all of their friends. Oliver, and the Jack Russell by extension, were the only ones to share in the truth of Hal’s condition and the heartbreaking frustration at his unwillingness to accept his circumstances.
Upon first glance some may accuse ‘Beginners’ of a classic tonal bait-and-switch, most notably as it transitions from the Woody Allen-esque, love-struck charm which accompanies the first spark of romance with Melanie Laurent’s intoxicating Anna, to a much more contemplative, cartharsis-seeking drama in which Oliver’s innate defeatism necessitates that he truly earn every moment of happiness, and the audience along with him. However, after some reflection, which the film most definitely asks of its audience, it becomes clear that the contemplation was there all along, and that at the heart of the narrative is a character study between two men: one who can’t help but drudge on despite reality (Hal), and the other (Oliver), who is so deeply unnerved by his father and mother’s own choices that he can’t help but walk away. In the highest Buddhist tradition, the true question is whether or not Oliver can strike out some middle path.
And yet, to downplay the sense of satisfaction and joy that comes alongside and often as a result of the pain, contemplation and self-discovery would also be unfair to ‘Beginners’. Yes, the hotel-room intimacy of Anna and Oliver’s relationship is utterly enthralling, but an even greater sense of serenity builds throughout with the contextualization of the echoes in time spoken to early. These familial memes (for the new media savvy) demonstrate that in a addition to the sins of our fathers that there are some things passed on across generations that are ostensibly insignificant, perhaps a specific turn of phrase or the imitated mannerism of a parent, and yet exist psychologically as a solemn remnant and for once harmless connection to the past. Early in the film, having found themselves in Oliver’s car after meeting at a costume party, Oliver says to Anna, “You point, I drive,” proceeding to take them in whichever way her finger may decry. It’s only in the closing minutes of the film that we discover that years early Oliver’s mother had said the same to him.
For its mixture of both hardship and delight, ‘Beginners’ will not make for the best date movie, but it just might teach you as much about yourself as it does its characters. It is by no means perfect, and yet its overall message deals so much with accepting the imperfections in life that it seems director Mike Mills is just a bit more sly that anyone ever imagined. Most of all, ‘Beginners’ endeavors to tell the truth, and that attempt alone positions it rightfully amongst the best of what modern film has to offer.