Director: Mike Mills | Runtime: 1h 45min | Drama, Comedy, Romance
Spanning a number important moments in Oliver’s (Ewan McGregor) life, we follow him as he meets Anna (Mélanie Laurent) a few months after his father Hal’s death (Christopher Plummer), the time Hal tells Oliver he’s gay as well as the times that followed.
Writer/Director Mike Mills hasn’t had the most widely known feature length career, but has sneakily made some of the more surprisingly funny, sentimental and moving films since the mid 2000’s. Making a mark with his debut Thumbsucker (2005), he has gone on to only make 3 feature lengths to date (with another currently in post production), and is likely more recognised for his extensive music video direction for artists such as Yoko Ono, Pulp and Moby. Though his first outing and most recent work 20th Century Woman (2016) have the same quirky and sweet tone, it’s his 2010 Ewan McGregor lead Beginners that currently stands as his best work.
Based off Mills’ own experience of his father telling him his sexuality at 75 and dying a few years later, there is a sense of authenticity that could have been missed. We’re introduced to McGregor’s Oliver through a snappy montage of pictures narrated by him, explaining the situation he’s in, the year, the family history. It’s very fast paced and sets the tone of the film immediately; wearing its heart firmly on its sleeve, very schmaltzy but with enough of a sincere core. Although plenty of the runtime focuses on the romance between Oliver and Anna, that at first we’re lead to believe is the heart of the film, Beginners is far more effective and interesting as a funny father/son drama. Plummer really shines as the stubborn dad finally being able to act how he’s always felt, and there are some genuinely touching moments despite Hal’s eccentric behaviour, like the time spent when Hal doesn’t tell his younger partner or friends that his cancer is terminal, and starts to ignore that himself, which takes it’s toll on Oliver.
McGregor comes as the perfect accompaniment to Plummer, both are just as effortlessly charming as each other. In a film like Beginners, there isn’t a specific adversary to highlight – there are antagonistic elements in play, but for a film like this to work the characters really need to connect with the audience, both Mills and his cast succeed in this. Oliver is a graphic artist, a highly sought after portrait design he once created almost haunts him as he tries to break from this typecasting, making a series for a band who simply wants their new album cover to look cool. In the constant flashbacks we see his relationship with his mother Georgia (Mary Page Keller) as fairly stilted, almost cold, but the love is present enough. In these younger years he doesn’t quite understand why his parents relationship isn’t fulfilling, only coming to terms with this after his father comes clean about his homosexuality.
The most compelling thread is the time before Hal’s death, a lovely juxtaposition to Oliver meeting Anna and how Hal changes Olivers outlook for the better.
The structure of these flashbacks has a very quirky style that would only work in a shorter, more independently lead feature; some are very well done, some miss the mark somewhat. Though the relationship between Oliver and his mother is interesting, Hal talks about it later in life, and it gets in the way of the pacing of the later narrative. The montage at the start also isn’t the only one throughout, and does sometime halt the flow of the film. The most compelling thread is the time before Hal’s death, a lovely juxtaposition to Oliver meeting Anna and how Hal changes Oliver’s outlook for the better, allowing him to have a far more affectionate and real relationship. Laurent is excellent as ever (2009’s Inglorious Basterds under Tarantino’s direction is another superb example) but the role doesn’t quite have the depth for her to really chew on, though they have their issues it does all come back to Oliver and Hal, McGregor and Laurent do the best they can and it’s still a worthy romance, but it does hit it’s sweetness apex a little too hard.
The most criticism is arguably aimed towards the ‘present day’ of 2004 but the rest of the film isn’t perfect, it doesn’t explore Hal and Oliver’s relationship that deeply, especially as Oliver learns about his sexuality and they both come to terms with Hal’s imminent death, everything seems to be tied in a all too neat bow without the pair coming to blows at all. Though, it is admirable that Hal’s reveal doesn’t change all that much for his son, it’s a very positive and progressive take considering that Hal’s situation of a essentially arranged marriage to hide his true feelings is very real for too many people.
Beginners is an almost impossibly warm and optimistic film, there are the somber notes throughout but a lot of the darker elements are forgone for heartfelt and tender moments, which does leave us wanting more depth. For some, the schmaltz might be too much, but in the end it feels like a love letter from a son to his father, and the important effect he had on his life, and can’t be knocked for that.