Happiness for Beginners…
"Beginners", the new film from writer/director Mike Mills ("Thumbsucker"), is a really well-made film about one man's relationship with his elderly father after he is shocked by two announcements his father makes.
Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is a graphic artist who lives in a pretty bare house. Oliver seems to be going through the motions. He moves slowly, reacts slowly, and doesn't seem to register things. He is almost too lonely. At work, he becomes obsessed with making a booklet for a group's CD depicting the various stages of loneliness. Oliver tries to take care of his elderly dad, Hal (Christopher Plummer), but Hal reveals two things to his son in fairly quick succession. Shortly after Georgia (Mary Page Keller), his wife, dies, Hal comes out and reveals he was pretty much always gay. Sure, he loved Oliver's mother, but she knew he was gay as well. A couple of years later, Hal learns he is sick. Very sick. Too sick to operate sick. So, just as he is about to begin living life again, he finds his life will be cut short. But Hal refuses to let this news dampen his newfound lust for life and doesn't want Oliver to tell Andy (Goran Visnjic), his boyfriend.
Part of the beauty of this film is that Oliver makes changes in his life, slight changes to his attitude and outlook when he sees how his father doesn't let his illness or impending death faze him. He makes an effort to let someone into his life when he realizes it is never too late. And this realization also comes from watching his dad fall in love again.
Love for Beginners…
When Hal comes out, he immediately embraced everything he can about being gay. He joins various groups and lets the members meet at his house, he places singles ads, he goes to a gay club. He is so entranced by his new life, he immediately calls Oliver late one night to tell him all about the club. He is almost giddy and starts mimicking the music, trying to get his son to help him identify it. It is a cute, nice moment and helps depict his newfound lust for life, the happiness he has now found.
But more importantly, he falls in love. And Oliver watches Hal and Andy and quickly embraces their new relationship. But as he sees their love develop, he decides to embrace love again and happens to meet a French actress, Anna (Melanie Laurent, "Inglourious Basterds") at a costume party. They talk and then go back to her hotel room (she is here to film a movie) and then start a relationship. As they spend more time together, they talk, they take walks at night, they share, they make love. They also spend a lot of time with Hal's Jack Russell Terrier, Arthur, following them around.
Then, as most relationships do, Oliver and Anna experience some problems and they decide to part ways rather than deal with the problems and try to build a stronger, better relationship.
As each man navigates the new waters of a relationship, they seem to learn from each other.
Oliver worries that he may be repeating the same mistakes, because he tells us he let each of his previous relationships unravel or end unattended. Relationships are work and he and Anna need to put in some effort. But will they realize that in time.
Life for Beginners…
From what I understand, this film is based on events that happened to Mills. I don't know how much of the story is semi-autobiographical, but this puts things in a different slant for me and helps me to understand the chronological layout of the film. Rather I should say the lack of chronology. The narrative jumps back and forth giving us snippets of time after Hal has passed away, after he comes out and begins exploring his new lifestyle, as his relationship with Andy grows, when he becomes sick, as he embraces the various groups he joins.
These moments are used, more or less, to illustrate Oliver's life, and how he changes throughout his Dad's new life. It almost seems like he is remembering key moments, leading to a memory of another key moment and he moves backwards, until he is a small boy watching his mom deal with her feelings of loneliness. What we quickly learn is that Oliver is always learning from those around him. In these early moments, he is learning about loneliness and this is something that will follow him throughout his life.
As the narrative begins to move back and forth, each moment seems to inform the next, and these moments seem to inform earlier scenes, giving the movie a more concise feel. Normally, this wouldn't be a noteworthy comment, but because the film is concise, it feels like it moves, like we are getting a great picture of the lives of the characters, like we are really spending quality time with them. This narrative structure allows Mills to skip over unnecessary bridging moments and show us just what we need to know.
Also, because Oliver narrates the story, and does so in a sort of stream of consciousness way, we really get the feeling we are watching his memories. The story begins with Oliver dealing with his father's passing, but then he starts to remember how his father came out and his dad is suddenly in the story. Because very little else changes throughout, it is difficult to keep yourself oriented in the timeline. But this is exactly what Mills wants because it allows him to jump around and give us more of a portrait of the characters and focus less on getting from point A to point B.
All three leads are great, but I have to say Christopher Plummer really stands out. The performance is really well-rounded, very believable and completely natural. His newfound lust for life is simply infectious and he begins to affect us, much like he changes his son's life. As an elderly man who suddenly comes out, who suddenly has the freedom to live as he wants, he digs into the lifestyle wholeheartedly. Naturally, as he is doing all of this for the first time, his eyes are open wide with anticipation. When he goes to a nightclub for the first time, he is eager to take the whole experience in, even though he realizes gay men are not so interested in a man of his age. Later, as Oliver goes through his dad's possessions, he finds a hand written draft of a personal's ad. It is interesting to see how Hal adapted to his new lifestyle, how quickly he was learning, and yet realize how far he had to go.
Then, when he meets Andy (Goran Visnjic), it is sweet to watch how in love these two men are.
Plummer gives Hal a lot of depth, informing his character in very subtle ways. Initially, Oliver is a little put off to learn his dad was always gay, throughout his marriage to his mother, but Hal isn't bitter about it or dismissive of the love Oliver's parents shared, so Hal's son accepts the revelation more. Sure, it explains a lot, and there were some awkward moments throughout Oliver's childhood, but Hal is happy and Oliver is happy to see his dad have some joy so late in his life.
As Hal becomes sick, Plummer guides us through the various stages. At one point, when he learns just how sick he is, he puts on a smile and makes Oliver promise he will not tell Andy. It is a subtle performance and the subtlety makes it a memorable role for an actor who has already had so many memorable performances.
Ewan McGregor is also very good. Oliver is a deeply lonely person, so lonely he starts talking with Arthur, his Dad's Jack Russell Terrier. Even Arthur comments that Oliver has to do something or the loneliness will completely engulf them. Initially, Oliver and Arthur only have each other and they spend a lot of time together. In fact, whenever Oliver tries to leave Arthur with someone else, the little Jack Russell starts to bark and yip causing Oliver to take him along. As they talk, Arthur's responses are printed on the screen while the dog simply stars at Oliver. You may be reading this with some skepticism, "The dog talks with a human?", but Mills presents it in a low key, no nonsense way and you just come to accept it. It's a cute and sometimes funny idea.
Oliver narrates the film, giving us his views and insights. Often, he will say something and then change his mind and we see the same image but in a slightly different way. Later, we see some of Oliver's art, surprisingly vibrant black marker drawings, which he uses to illustrate his feelings, or to give us portraits of the women he has had relationships with in the past. It is a nice touch giving the film's overall sense of discovery a touch of whimsy.
When Oliver meets Anna, you can see a little light come on. It's still buried deep within, but you get the sense she may be able to lead him back to life.
And the more time they spend together, the more Oliver seems infatuated with her.
Melanie Laurent is also very good. When Oliver first meets her, at a costume party, they barely speak but she is oddly attracted to the man who is dressed as Sigmund Freud and encourages him to talk and ask questions.
Goran Visnjic has less time to make an impact as Andy, Hal's new, younger boyfriend. And he isn't around in a few scenes, but because of the mixed up chronology it is difficult to tell if Andy is just not present at that moment, if they broke up, if he is absent because of Hal's sickness, whatever reason. When he does have a few lines, he seems to be trying to portray the character as needy and effeminate. He stares at Oliver in a way telling us he is trying to figure out his boyfriend's son. At one point, he confronts Oliver with his feelings, trying to get to the heart of the matter. It is certainly a different performance for the sex symbol who once starred on TV's "ER", but I didn't feel it was entirely successful.
"Beginners" is a near-great look at the growing pains a father and son experience late in their lives. But they learn from or help each other which makes the film very sweet and almost endearing.
You really should see it. If you give a film like this your patronage, you are encouraging filmmakers to make more films like this and, more importantly, making it easier for them to be seen at your local theater.