Written and Directed by: Mike Mills
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Melanie Laurent, Christopher Plummer, Goran Visnjic
Rated: R for language and some sexual content
“Beginners” seems more like a dream or a meditation than a movie with a plot. It switches effortlessly between past and present, offers no easy answers to the questions that underlie its characters’ lives, and leaves a great deal unsaid. It’s a film for art cinema lovers, for those interested in movies that capture life in all its sweet (and sometimes painful) messiness.
“Beginners” is not a film that lends itself to brief description. Depending on which aspects of the story one chooses to focus on, it can sound like a charmingly bittersweet comedy, or a grim tragedy, or anything in between. Taken as a whole, though, it’s actually a strange blend of both — much like real life.
Oliver (Ewan McGregor) starts the film out somewhat lost. It’s been nearly three months since his elderly father Hal (Christopher Plummer) passed away, leaving him a house and a Jack Russell terrier. Several years earlier, shortly after Oliver’s mother passed, his father came out as gay and plunged into the gay community in his area. Hal joined organizations, got a boyfriend, and generally lived it up until his time ran out.
Oliver handled his father’s revelation and life changes surprisingly well, but lingering effects of the underlying dysfunction in his parents’ marriage are evident. He grew up hearing from his parents that their marriage was fine, but it was obvious to him from a young age that everything was not all right, and that has colored his own attempts to forge lasting relationships. When Oliver meets Anna (Melanie Laurent) at a party, their relationship blossoms almost immediately. Both of them, however, have a history of leaving relationships — even if they want to keep this one together, will they be able to?
A great deal in “Beginners” is left unsaid, or said with images, or said indirectly. Oliver talks to all sorts of things, from his father’s house to his father’s dog (the replies he imagines the dog making are presented as subtitles), and draws often bizarre images in his work as an illustrator. As the film progresses, some of these things are explained, but not all of them.
This is a film that shows us two men in the early stages of having authentic relationships for the first time in their lives. Hal is 75 when he begins, and he grabs onto opportunity with both hands. Oliver, at 38, is more hesitant. McGregor and Plummer shine in their roles, and the other actors sometimes seem a little hamfisted when sharing the screen with the subtlety of the two main actors.
If you’re looking for simple entertainment or a feel-good comedy, “Beginners” is not going to fit the bill. It’s a complicated, sometimes difficult film, which offers up portraits of its characters with little comforting, pat solutions to their problems. Like all of us, they muddle through the best they can.