I had seen much of the publicity for Mike Mills‘ Beginners and was aware of Christopher Plummer’s Oscar nomination and win for Best Supporting Actor earlier this year. I also had some preconceived notions of what the film would be like…based on the press and clips that circulated around the film. Neither I…nor they…got it right.
Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is a thirty-something artist/designer whose mother has died. A short time later, his father Hal (Plummer), at age 75, announces that he is gay…has been since he was thirteen. This explains much of the distance that Oliver observed between his parents who, he had assumed, had simply fallen out of love with one another. Hal’s also dying of lung cancer which has spread to his lymph nodes. Hal wants Oliver to keep it a secret (or at least how much it has spread) from his new partner Andy (Goran Visnjic) and the rest of their friends. At the same time, Oliver also struggles with his own relationships. He’s either walked out on four significant relationships or just let them expire. He meets an intriguing French actress, Anna (Melanie Laurent), at a party and the two strike up their own, soon-to-be-troubled relationship. The film traces Oliver’s flashbacks of childhood, time spent with his dying father, and his efforts to create and maintain something special with Anna.
For me, the film’s structure was one of it’s high points, particularly the ways in which director Mills and editor Olivier Bugge Coutte cut back and forth between the “distant” past, the “recent” past, and the present, allowing each time period to shape our perception of the other. As Oliver reflects on his experiences in 2003 and his parents’ experiences in 1955, images of magazine ads, family photos, newspaper clippings, etc. quickly appear and disappear, denoting cultural images and the “evolution” of everything from pet ownership to happiness. Plummer gives a good performance, but I have to admit that that Oscar win certainly feels more like a lifetime achievement award than anything else. As central as Hal’s experience is to the story, it often feels overshadowed by Oliver’s experience with Anna, which I think brings the film down on a variety of levels.
Based on all the publicity, you could have been forgiven for thinking that the film would have focused more extensively on Plummer’s storyline, and that we had some sort of slap-happy, 75-year-old-comes-out-and-hilarity-ensues-dramedy. There are some humorous moments that emerge from the situation, but thankfully they don’t set the tone for the film. Hal’s experiences as a tortured gay man not only shape his identity and dictate his relationships, but they also influence Oliver’s experiences and his ability to give and feel love. Oliver eventually learns that while his father was harboring a secret, his mother was also living a double life, hiding her Jewish identity at the same time. It would not be too much of a stretch to say that both repressed identities took physical tolls on their lives and snatched them away from Oliver during his mid-thirties and made them emotionally unavailable to him in his childhood.
Without a doubt, Oliver’s experiences of his parents’ relationship muddy the waters of his own. His most recent partner, Anna, has family issues as well, particularly an emotionally and psychologically unstable father. So it’s no surprise that there’s trouble brewing for these two star-crossed lovers, which I think is a real threat to a potentially prophetic film. At times, Beginners threatens to veer into more youthful malaise/ennui territory of films like 500 Days of Summer where a seemingly perfectly suited couple can’t get over themselves to be with one another. Of course, this critique assumes that their “relationship faculties” are healthy and in check. In its own way, Beginners subtly points to the long lasting effects of the “banally” traumatic…a milder version of Serene Jones’ discussions in Trauma and Grace. That is to say, Oliver doesn’t see or suffer from extreme acts of violence between his parents or from them, but rather fails to see a loving connection that draws him in.
Beginners raises a handful of other points of discussion. These are just a few. Another point of importance is the reality that those who go before us, most often our parents, make sacrifices and live lives that we don’t have to in order to provide us with better opportunities. Oliver has this great line in which he says his parents [and their generation] never had time to be sad so that they [his generation] could be happier than they ever were. While we might all be beginners, Beginners seems to suggest that, with better inspiration, some of us have a bit of a head start.
Beginners (105 mins.) is rated R for language and some sexual content and is on DVD.