Beginners (2010, Mike Mills)
Beginners is an autobiographical narrative film and it says a lot about the force and substance of its content that this feature does not automatically render it a self-indulgent mess. Writer-director Mike Mills essentially retells here the story of a few tumultuous years in his life: his widowed father came out as a gay man and began to explore this side of himself that had long been repressed, but then he became afflicted with cancer and gradually succumbed during a number of fits of denial. Seeing no point in emotionally giving in to his disease, he attempted to keep living until the very last moment. Thereafter, Mills found himself attempting to come to terms with the loss of his parents and with his grappling attempts to sustain some sort of a personal life, with an adorable Jack Russell terrier in tow. Look, all this sounds serious and fiercely personal and that’s quite true, but it’s also a witty and elegantly performed film with considerable humor that does not rob its unsentimental, raw directness of its impact. Indeed, I giggled at the sheer feverish fit of its world embrace but was finally such an emotional wreck by the end that I had to go and take a walk.
And that means something, because I can’t remember the last time a movie had that effect on me. It overcomes quite a few obstacles to achieve this. Ewan McGregor, affecting a ludicrously unnecessary American accent, is alternately adorable and grating in the lead role of “Oliver,” Mills’ very own William Miller. Some of the film’s flourishes, like periodic subtitles for the dog, just don’t really land. And the structure of the script suggests an inner world that McGregor doesn’t really hint at in his somewhat muted performance. The directness of the voiceover — so vividly Mills using a mouthpiece in a documentarylike fashion — is initially disarming but in the end makes things a bit too on the nose. The effect of memories of Oliver’s parents on his troubles in creating and sustaining a budding relationship would be clearly marked enough without the overextended hemming and hawing we get. Nevertheless, the film’s unusually, achingly perceptive about the nature of personal upheaval and finally of being a human — and features some of the subtlest, truest visualizations of depression I’ve ever seen.
What you’ll take away from all this, however, is the portion of the film that involves Christopher Plummer. The flashbacks to Oliver’s relationship to his mom, brilliantly and enigmatically envisioned by Mary Page Keller, are telling and almost oppressive in their sadness, and the film is correct to linger on the central tragedy that she was unable to ever really love; but redemption in many ways is illustrated by the later life of Plummer’s Hal, Oliver’s father. Hal’s joyous flirtations and explorations of the world so long denied to himself are sobering, warm and impossibly moving — it’s not all positive either, with considerable struggles with and adjustments to his polyamourous partner Andy (Goran Višnjic) after a lifetime of supposed monogamy. Višnjic’s defiantly flamboyant portrayal is a risky stroke here, opening the film up to accusations of vague homophobia, but I feel it goes beyond that; Andy’s not a gay stereotype, he’s a note-perfect archetype of how we view our parents’ later (post-divorce, post-widowing) partners, and how we can’t help judging their decisions even when we shouldn’t.
But Beginners belongs completely to Plummer, who is simply astonishing. His is one of the finest performances in an American film in many years, and he alone would make the film worth seeing with or without the stumbling blocks it sets for itself in attempting to achieve real gut-splitting connections. His late (but not too late) blooming into the life he spent decades longing for is a wake-up call not just to Oliver but to all of us, and the film’s greatest virtue may be that it does not neuter this gay man in his seventies — he is blunt and open about his desires, and even more open about the importance of said desires. In a decade or two it will no longer impress us that the film doesn’t flinch before homosexuality, and it’s already a vastly less radical movie than it would’ve been just twenty years back, but Plummer’s rich embodiment of a man embracing life, really clutching it and holding on as tightly as he can for the first time, will always be startling, will always have a sobering impact on the viewer.
All this will make you wish that Plummer were completely the focus of the film; Mills’ stand-in Oliver is charming and his plight is riveting to a point, but then along comes the love interest. She is an actress named Anna played by Mélanie Laurent; they meet in a charming party scene during which she is dressed as Charlie Chaplin, he as Sigmund Freud despondent on a couch; she sits next to him, mute, and writes “WHY ARE YOU AT A PARTY IF YOU’RE SAD?” on a piece of paper. Yes, indeed. Whether this really happened or not (and really, could it?), Mills has infected his intimately revealing self-examination with a blatant MPDG. I have no clue, nor should I be entitled to know, what portions of the Oliver story here are what really happened to Mills, but I can tell you what doesn’t feel real, and that is this relationship.
One would expect the casting of his parents’ marriage in a somewhat-but-not-wholly-new light (surely he knew something was amiss for those memories to so clearly stand out) to lead him to reevaluate his decisions and painstakingly attempt to assure himself of being true to his own needs and desires, but instead this seems mostly to lead to a lot of wishy-washy throttling back and forth across the globe that rings a little hollow to me. Worse, it makes Oliver’s depression seem rather pat when it comes down simply to something so basic as commitment issues that are terribly articulated, never really deeply sold by either actor nor the script. The emotional outgrowth of the film’s central thesis should feel as complex as it undoubtedly was, but in Beginners all of the issues Oliver himself deals with seem like trite rom-com stuff compared to the problems his parents are shown to face.
That said, the film is beautifully directed and even more beautifully edited; its chronological leaping around — wildly nonlinear, establishing intricate relationships between past, further past, and present — is impressive on a level with Annie Hall. I don’t want to bring you excessive detail regarding why I was so affected by this film. I didn’t have a closeted parent, nor do I feel I’ve ever had anything quite like the problems with commitment experienced by Oliver here (in fact, if anything I’ve dealt with the opposite) — but every emotional beat in this that did land, landed like a rock falling upon my chest, like a year’s worth of lumps in the throat. So much of this is my dad, my mom, my pensiveness, my loneliness and yearning, my observations, etc.; I have to assume that most of those who see it are likely to feel the same. But if you don’t now, try it again in a few years and see what happens then. And see also if any other movie has ever managed to make you choke up when its title, with its meaning suddenly clear, finally appeared.