Saturday, July 9, 2011

Beginners (****)

Written and Directed by Mike Mills


There's a certain charm behind the kind of film that would give a dog subtitles for dialogue. This is an act that could always come off as campy if done gratuitously, and worse yet, could seem pretentious if done more tastefully. Beginners is a film filled with small details and motifs that could be construed as reaching and silly if not executed with very precise delicacy. Yet, director Mike Mills so expertly weaves through all the fuss, crafting a wonderful mosaic and telling a beautifully melancholy tale about a man reaching forty who still can't seem to find out why he's so unhappy.

That man is Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a graphic designer working out of New York. In 1999, his mother died of cancer and only a few months after, his father Hal (Christopher Plummer), admitted to him that he was gay and had been gay throughout his entire 45-year marriage. In an instant, Oliver fully realizes what was behind the lovelessness he had witnessed for his whole childhood. He watches as Hal evolves into an open and enthusiastic gay man, changing his styles and sensibilities, while finding true happiness. Four years later, Oliver learns that Hal has Stage Four cancer and that his case is terminal.

The discovery of both his father's sexuality and his health is a bit to take in such a short amount of time, and Oliver finds himself dedicating much of his time to being with Hal and later taking great care of him as he gets more and more ill. This cuts into his personal life in a pretty severe way, but perhaps Oliver prefers it this way? His entire adult life, he has worked hard to sabotage nearly every serious romantic relationship he has had, to the point that even a decaying Hal begins to notice his lack of female companionship. Then, in 2003, Oliver meets Anna (Mélanie Laurent), a French actress with Laryngitis, at an eccentric costume party where he's dressed as Sigmund Freud and she as Charlie Chaplin.

The film weaves back and forth through time indiscriminately, tracing the evolution of Oliver's relationship with Anna, his relationship with Hal, and occasionally touching in on his childhood connection with his detached mother, Georgia (Mary Page Keller). It swirls around all these aspects of his life in an attempt to find out one thing: why is Oliver so sad? He seems destined to destroy things with Anna, even as their love together grows quickly and passionately. Still, thoughts of the lack of passion in his parents' marriage plague his mind, causing him to end things before they can ever get to that point.

Mike Mills (director of the 2005 film Thumbsucker and various other short films and music videos) has been said to have drawn on a lot of life experience for the penning of this screenplay. He himself had an elderly father who came out as gay after decades of marriage, which makes sense when you consider how expertly the intimacy is portrayed between Oliver and Hal. Mills has described the film as the thesis on his life, exploring various issues, images, and events within his life in an attempt to make sense of what seems like an endless string of sadness. But in his attempt to make a personal passion project, he's created a film that also possesses a universal appeal and a quiet optimism despite it's occasional mopeyness.

Is there a lot going on in Beginners? Totally. It's focus is not always very targeted and it has the meandering nature of a film with a much looser narrative. Very few films can spend time focusing on an intimate father-son relationship and also focus on the Gay Rights Movement of the 70's and 80's without seeming bloated, but Mills is able to weave in and around all of these ideas efficiently and in a way that feels natural. It keeps itself grounded because it stays so close to Oliver. The mosaic nature of an individual's personality (especially one as tortured as Oliver's) is usually the product of many different people and moments, and that stream-of-consciousness-like path helps enhance the lived-in nature of the film.

Ewan McGregor gives one of his greatest performances, consistently downplaying all of Oliver's insecurities and depression, but always allowing a small peak above the surface. It's a thankless performance that was perfect for the film. A showier performer could have sunk this story. As Anna, Laurent continues the excellence she showed in Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds. Anna possesses nearly the same amount of neuroses as Oliver, but Laurent must show this in much less screentime and even less backstory, but she does so wonderfully while still making Anna endearing and enchanting. Christopher Plummer, the film's elder statesman, also does excellent work here. As the newly freed Hal, Plummer fills the role with such light and humor, while still able to show the melancholy, and later, the despair when he's met with impending death.

It should be said the film also contains fantastic supporting performances from both Keller as the perpetually embittered Georgia, and Goran Vinsjic as Andy, Hal's much-younger and occasionally oblivious lover. The film is filled with wonderful performances all across the board. But the real star here is Mills, who fills this film with such quirk and self-deprecating humor that it's hard to remember that it is, at it's heart, a human drama. I'm sure many will see Beginners and box it in with other, more pretentious, independent film character studies, but I feel it's modest tone and heart raise it above the usual downtrodden character piece. What Mills crafted here may end up being the best film of the year.

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