“Beginners” | a film review by Gary Chew

When a husband and wife are not really in love, the persons most cognizant of that unfortunate possibility are their offspring. And it seems, the younger the child, the more perceptive he or she is, whether or not the youngster is processing it.

Young Oliver (Keegan Boos) knows something’s wrong between his dad and mom. It’s not until his late 30s that Oliver (Ewan McGregor, being very good, btw) comes to fully understand why he was picking up on their vibes of discontent when he was 7 or 8.

Yes, “Beginners” is about how well one person can pick up on the vibes of another… and what may ensue following the perception.

Thirtysomething Oliver has just struggled his way past the event of the death of his marvelously human and eccentric mother, Georgia (Mary Page Keller). Not long after that, Oliver’s father, Hal (Christopher Plummer, as always, superb), salvos a line at his son in a moment of 75-year-old candor: “I’m gay! And I’ve known it since before I married your mother.”

Shortly after that, Oliver gets another blast from his dad: Hal has being diagnosed with cancer. And he’s going to live the rest of his life… by gawd… GAY! He’s earned it.

You probably know now why this film, written and directed by Berkeley, California native, Mike Mills, carries the title of “Beginners.” No doubt, with his string of break-ups of short duration love affairs with young women, suffering the death of his mom and his dad’s coming-out and cancer diagnosis, Oliver is just a beginner.

But the movie is titled “Beginners.”

Yes, in the plural. There are four beginners in the picture: Oliver, Hal, Arthur, uh, their dog…and Anna (Mélanie Laurent of “Inglorious Basterds,” glorious here, “beginning”).

Oh yes… Anna.

Mélanie Laurent and Ewan McGregor

It’s Anna who zones-in on Oliver’s vibes at the nutty costume party they meet at. It’s a pretty ($) comfortable bunch of professionals who’ve been invited. In fact, Hal and Oliver and Anna (a New York actress now working in Los Angeles) don’t have money problems. Moreover, as said in the film, Oliver and Anna have been fortunate enough in their lives to have had the time to feel sadness.

That’s what Anna sees in Oliver at the party, as Mike Mills moves along this excellent autobiographical film that plays a little like a documentary. But don’t let that keep you from seeing it, because “Beginners” is anything but. Really: it’s quite a lot more.

But what about dad and his recently found male lover, Andy (played by Goran Visnjic), several years younger than elderly Hal. Hal feigned being straight for 44 years of being married to Georgia . He does qualify as someone in the film who didn’t have the time to feel sadness, isn’t he? Yes he does, but there are other characters in the story who can say the same thing.

But, pause now and think for a moment about what, exactly, a life led without the time to feel sadness must be like.

Lots of us know the answer. And that’s why you’ll see people in “Beginners” seemingly role-playing as they act their scripted parts, having really neat, silly fun with other characters written into the story. Most of the characters have had the time to stop and reflect, and feel their personal sadness about what’s not been going on in their lives they think should, or that which they’ve yet to dream, can’t.

The role-playing going on in “Beginners” is coping.

At first, it’s not clear that’s what they’re doing. It’s only after Anna and Oliver begin chatting at the zany party that she picks up on the stuffed sadness inside Oliver, who is having just one hellava time in his Sigmund Freud costume. Really.

“Beginners” is not linear, but, at the same time, it’s not what you’d expect if you’re thinking of the spate of non-linear films that have come out the past few years. The narrative flows by in swatches of then and now, with unusual pauses for short bites of, almost, documentary-style explanations given by the film’s narrator, Mr. McGregor. His voice is very soothing and special to the film’s tone.

I’m wondering if the quasi-documentary style stems from Mike Mills having done actual documentary films in the past. Whatever the case, he scores heavily with the way the script is written—never confusing as to the time setting in which stuff happens and how it all jibes and connects, as he pushes the story forward.

Much conviviality and celebration take place in “Beginners.” That’s good, since there are very serious things afoot. After it’s well-established that Hal might not live much longer (not having told anyone but Oliver), the atmosphere of the film, at times, reminded me of those celebratory moments in “Philadelphia” with Tom Hanks and that picture’s revelations of the personal struggles of homosexuals, partying with their friends—some of them terminal with HIV AIDS.

Affirmation of life seems to be the fuel the film takes for its energy, as well as from the laughter generated by the subtitled remarks of Hal and Oliver’s Jack Russell terrier, who “claims” to know only about 150 words of English, but, like all canines, is unable to speak any of them.

Other than that, “Beginners” is taken from real life. Mike Mills’s father came out of the closet at age 75, and anyone not realizing that Mills has done a really terrific job crafting an enduring tribute to his father… has probably gone into a wrong theater at the cineplex to see this special, sensitive motion picture.


Beginners” official site. Now in limited release.

Gary Chew
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