Tuesday, July 12, 2011

"Beginners": A Film Review

"Beginners" is a lovely little film about living a life free of artifice, and the anxiety of finally dropping the shield of our pretenses.   It's also a low-key, boy-and-his father's-dog story; a celebration of leaving the closet to live life openly gay, at any age; and a charming and funny look at the start of a tentative love affair between two damaged yet caring individuals.

It's a movie that speaks in even tones.  It doesn't draw attention to itself, which will likely give it a short theatrical run, until possibly Oscar season, when one or two names will likely be called out as nominees: (writer-director Mike Mills for his wise screenplay, and actor Christopher Plummer in excellent support.)

"Beginners" doesn't flash its intentions; it presents stories of different characters in different stages of relationship to one another, but offers no tidy resolutions.  What it does offer is an absorbing slice-of-life, one that is cleverly dissected and reassembled in an original way.  Mills story is a loose retelling of some of his own life experiences and family dynamics, and it is to he great credit that "Beginners" is such a fascinating picture to look at, and think about.

Ewan MacGregor is Oliver,a cartoon illustrator who is dealing with the recent death of his father.  The dad here is played lovingly by Plummer, who, in his seventies and a widow, decides to finally come out of the closet and find fulfillment in a love he had always denied himself.  Neither actor has been better.

Plummer's role as Hal is a small but potent one, seen all in flashback from MacGregor's point of view.  Plummer's gentility and lack of irony make for a hilarious and concentrated portrayal of one whose life suddenly is filled with color and music and possibility.  There's no Captain von Trapp here.  He infuses his character with fatherly love, and gives giddy play to his new-found bitchiness and pop-culture sense.

MacGregor does not overplay depression, but moves naturally, and relaxedly, and uses his posture, and his eyes, to captivate the viewer. His expressive face helps us see his confused yet loving adjustment to a father he must learn to relate to in a new way, while honoring his mother's memory.   I think this is the start of a new career for MacGregor on-screen...his appeal here is amazing.

Plummer's lover Andy, energetically portrayed by "ER's" Goran Visnic, is a carefree fireworks expert, and a generously loving person, who eventually helps unlock MacGregor's perceptions, and helps Oliver find new appreciation for the loneliness his father endured in life, mostly for his family's sake.

MacGregor's normal mourning is complicated by his incomplete adjustment to this new aspect of his father's life.  It causes him to question the genuineness of his parents' marriage, and raises issues of trust and openness in his own romantic relationships, which have been short-lived.

But this isn't sounding nearly as fun as "Beginners" really is...Which is why I admired the fragmented style of the screenplay and editing, in which the stories flow easily back and forth in time, finding unexpected humor and small epiphanies. 

I especially liked how MacGregor's character, emotionally repressed to start with, tries to deal with his feelings by categorizing the world in wildly illustrated monologues, or lists, in a style that reminded me of early scenes in "Amelie".  He also fills his professional illustrations with melancholy, even going so far as to ruin a music company's potential commission by turning an album cover into a "history of sadness".

Once again, this is not at all depressing, and is likely to make a viewer smile.  Mills, who was an illustrator, shapes these quirky segments and finds much forgiving humor in them.

Two individuals come into MacGregor's life.  At a costume party in which Oliver is dressed as Sigmund Freud, he connects with Annie, played by Melanie Laurent, who herself is dressed like Charlie Chaplin.  In character, he does all the talking, questioning really, and she responds silently, a small message pad providing "titles" for her speech.  Because she sees right through MacGregor's sadness and gently reflects it back to him, he feels immediately comfortable with her, and love begins to bloom.  Both characters need time to be forthright and direct, to be able to honestly deal with the complicated feelings each arouses in the other.

Laurent's character is the least-developed of the three protagonists, as she exists in the film primarily as MacGregor's love interest.  But there is an ethereal and playful quality that Laurent brings to her character, so that she lights up most every scene she is in.

Enter the second "individual" in MacGregor's life. It is Plummer's Jack Russell Terrier, Arthur, who comes to live with MacGregor.  For this viewer, this little critter is alone worth the price of admission.  With an eager expressive face, and a frisky loyalty, he stole every scene.  It's funny, too, that the dog, such as he is, communicates more directly than any other character.  Oliver can actually "talk" to the dog, whose "thoughts" are occasionally shown in subtitle.  But this is not some cutesy kids-film dog-speak; he asks penetrating questions about Oliver and his new love Annie, such as "Are we married yet?"

Three characters and a dog reinvent their lives to varying degrees.  All of them find a new beginning to their lives. One, who lived his new beginning most fully, has passed on.  The others, guided by his memory, are left to start a new journey together.  We cannot help but wish them well.

An unorthodox film which calls for an unorthodox review.  I recommend this film for all of you who enjoy human stories with a shaggy-dog flavor.....


  1. I think I shall be seeing this next weekend, if only for the raved performance from the dog.

    Your very sweet review certainly gets my interest picqued.

  2. Ben, it was a sweet film.. that is a great word to describe it.

    It's so quirky I can't predict how you will like it... Obviously, I hope some of it moves you!

  3. It is sad that sometimes we find ourselves and a new life so close to the end of our lives. This movie should make us think about compassion, connection, and understanding. It is my hope that our future will be one filled with these qualities so that everyone can live a nourishing, rich, full life.