Beginners *** ½
Directed by: Mike Mills.
Written by: Mike Mills.
Starring: Ewan McGregor (Oliver), Christopher Plummer (Hal), Mélanie Laurent (Anna), Goran Visnjic (Andy), Kai Lennox (Elliot), Mary Page Keller (Georgia), Keegan Boos (Young Oliver).
Beginners is a perceptive film about two men, from two different generations, and how they learn to get out of their own way. Only once they do that, can they truly open themselves up and be happy. The first is Hal (Christopher Plummer) who was married for more than 40 years, and 6 months after his wife dies, comes out of the closet. He has always known he was gay, but could never be open about it before his wife died. No free of that burden, he has a few short years when he can live the way he always wanted to. The other is Oliver (Ewan McGregor), Hal’s son, who was shocked and confused by his father revelation – but doesn’t act like many movie characters would act – which is to be angry. He accepts his father, and spends a lot of time with him in the last few years – especially after he gets sick and is dying. We get the feeling that Oliver always suspected something – that there was always something between father and son that didn’t allow the closeness either one of them wanted, until his father finally admits who he is. Perhaps this is why, following Hal’s death, Olivier finally lets his guard down and becomes involved in a truly meaningful relationship with Anna (Melanie Laurent) – an actress he meets at a party.
Beginners is not a movie with a villain, or even the type of traditional conflict we expect to see. It flashes back and forth between three times periods – the last few years of Hal’s life, when he becomes involved in a committed relationship with Andy (Goran Visnjic), a few months after Hal’s death when Oliver is starting his relationship with Anna, and flashbacks to Oliver’s life as a child – where Hal is unseen, and his mother Georgia (Mary Page Keller) is deeply unhappy. Oliver know has the benefit of hindsight, to see that Georgia was trapped in an unhappy marriage to a gay man, but as a child it was confusing. Out of the three family members, we feel the most for poor Georgia. While Hal at least gets a few years of his life to be free and happy, and Oliver should have the last half of his, poor Georgia never got a chance. No wonder she acted they way she did.
Beginners is a pleasant film – in fact, it may be just a bit too pleasant for its own good. Whatever troubles Hal has coming out, and finding a partner, are pretty quickly glossed over, and he finds just about the perfect man in Andy. We feel at the beginning that perhaps Andy is a gold digger – there for Hal’s money and little else – but as the relationship progresses, it’s clear that there is a deep love between these two. And the trouble Oliver has with commitment is dealt with a little too quickly and neatly when he goes through problems with Anna. The messiness that comes with romantic relationships isn’t quite there enough in Beginners.
But it’s hard to complain too much when the performances are this good. Ewan McGregor has always been a talented actor, but I’m not sure I’ve seen him as open, vulnerable and subtle as he is in this movie. And Christopher Plummer is starting to get great roles again in the late stages of his career. He makes Hal lovable and sweet, almost naïve, as he whole heartedly embraces the gay lifestyle. Their scenes together are the highlight of the movie – something wholly different from just about any other father-son relationship I’ve seen before. Melanie Laurent is female perfection personified in Anna, and it’s a lovely little performance. As is Visjinic’s as Andy. And then there’s Arthur the dog, giving the best animal performance of the year.
Written and directed by Mike Mills, based on his own life, Beginners is pleasurable viewing experience. It’s almost like a life affirming fable, preaching that it’s never too late to start fresh, and embrace who you really are. It’s better late than never, because if you don’t, you may just end up like poor Georgia.