Beginners could have been a very tiresome movie, another tale of two people trying to start over again after leaving their old lives behind, another story of fathers and sons coming to an understanding. Make no mistake, it is about those things, but writer/director Mike Mills finds a way around making any part of his film predictable. It seems like you’re entering familiar territory, but then something magical happens as you sink deeper in to the charming, non-linear embrace of Beginners.
After his mother dies, Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is thrown for a loop by his father Hal’s (Christopher Plummer) decision to come out of the closet after more than 40 years of happy marriage to a woman. Though terminal cancer slows him down, he wastes no time embracing his new lifestyle with what little life he has left, visiting clubs and joining causes and starting a relationship with a much younger man (Goran Visnjic).
We pick up Oliver’s life after his father’s death, as he’s trying to get back in the dating game after he meets the beautiful Anna (Melanie Laurent), a French actress. Chronically unlucky in love, he reflects on his father’s fearless final days as he tries to figure out how to make this relationship last.
In our eyes Oliver’s life becomes a stream of consciousness blending of images, colors, memories and new experiences as Anna’s gentleness and own troubled past draw them closer together. He tries to learn from his father, and also from his long-dead mother, even as he struggles against the same old pitfalls that killed his previous relationships. Through Oliver we see a version of Hal that’s gentle, optimistic and loving, but still very hard for his own son to understand.
Beginners is that marvelous blend of not quite comedy and not quite drama. I say marvelous because, if they’re done right, films like that ring the truest. Life is messy, after all, neither a barrage of jokes nor a barrage of tragedies. Mills finds a way to blend the two in a kind of seamless screen poetry, merging the past and present and the conscious and subconscious masterfully.
If there’s a flaw in the film, though, it’s that Mills sometimes takes his nonlinear framework a little too far. There are moments when the film’s structure seems ready to collapse in on itself with collaged images and feelings. It feels flimsy, and as a consequence some of the emotional weight of what’s happening fades a bit. By the end, though, Mills knows where he’s headed, and even with its sometimes murky storytelling Beginners ends right where it should.
The cast is universally fantastic, but none more so than Plummer, who won his first ever Oscar for his portrayal of Hal. There’s nothing flashy about what he does, nothing terribly flamboyant. It’s all in the eyes, and that you’re able to follow him through even the most subtle moments is proof of his mastery of the craft. McGregor and Laurent also shine, both displaying an often staggering emotional range.
Beginners is not perfect. Sometimes its own ambition gets in the way of its emotional core, leaving some scenes murky and a little too loose. But even with those flaws, it shines as an example of a bold new way of telling a very old story. It’s a moving, enchanting little film, and very easily endearing.
Beginners is available everywhere on DVD and Blu-Ray.