Written and Directed by: Mike Mills
Starring: Christopher Plummer, Ewan McGregor, Melanie Laurent
Something tragic happened to American independent cinema in the last decade or so: quirk. I have opinions on this, which are sure to surface sooner or later on this blog but for now the bottom line is that the advent of certain films has brought about inescapable quirk in independent filmmaking. Mike Mills’ Beginners is a beautiful film, and it tells a touching story that Mills tries so hard to sabotage by forcing quirkiness where it doesn’t belong.
Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is dealing with the recent death of his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) who, four years earlier at the age of 78 announced that he was, and had always been, gay. This is a shock to Oliver as his parents were married for nearly 40 years and he had assumed they were simply not in love, but Oliver is never angry, likely because Hal’s confidence and joy is so powerful that it would be impossible to hold any grudges. Beginners is a mixture of three time-lines; the main one observes Oliver after his father’s death, as he falls in love with Anna (Melanie Laurent) and fights his own commitment issues, the second observes Oliver as a boy, spending time with his mother and the third focuses on the relationship between Oliver and Hal during the years before Hal’s death.
There is so much beauty in Beginners, as it explores an old man who has shed his secrets and finally learned to live. Hal dances at night clubs, falls in love with a handsome young man named Andy (Goran Visnjic), and embraces his newfound pride and it is a beautiful thing. Oliver and Anna have a beautiful relationship that feels so natural and intimate. Through wardrobe choices and certain behaviour, Mills seems determined to represent Anna as an Annie Hall figure, which I find to be an odd choice, because if Annie Hall is anything, it is a love story about two people who were never, ever in love. This doesn’t seem an apt comparison here, the relationship between Anna and Oliver is compelling because they are in love and it does have the potential to survive.
Mills also seems bent on indie-ing up his movie as much as possible, stuffing it to the gills with all the quirkiness he can. Some of it works, such as the infrequent subtitles for Oliver’s dog’s thoughts, or the costume party where Oliver and Anna meet, and even Anna’s notepad through which she communicates (laryngitis). Other things do not work, such as Oliver’s inexplicable habit of introducing a new character, and then providing Polaroids of an obscure list of objects as they were in that person’s year of birth (This is the president, this is what the sun looked like, this is what fireworks looked like…). This is not necessarily Mills’ fault, it is just symptomatic of the belief that independent cinema cannot just tell a beautiful story about interesting people, it must also be twee-to-death; here, quirkiness is equal to originality. Thankfully for Beginners, the maturity and tenderness of the core story is able to mostly stamp out the juvenile and disingenuous affectations of the narrative structure. The surprising maturity in the film is due in no small part to the film’s excellent cast. Ewan McGregor and Melanie Laurent are so charmingly and convincingly in love, that it is a pleasure to watch them together. Chritopher Plummer offers up an incredibly insightful performance as Hal, showing incredible range and subtlety as he discovers new life and death all at once. Kudos, as well, to Cosmo the dog for his charming performance as cinemas most perceptive dog.
I liked Beginners a lot, I wanted the best for the characters and I accepted them warts and all. Mills does a better job directing the film than I’ve yet given him credit for, so let me say that he builds beautiful moments of intimacy, and is an efficient story teller; he succeeds despite his own best efforts. Plummer is a shoe-in for an Oscar nomination, and Melanie Laurent, who I’d only known from Inglorious Basterds (2009), proves herself to be a talented actress outside the grasp of a Tarantino script.