Beginners (United States, 2010)

June 15, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Beginners Poster

Beginners comes as close to presenting a first person perspective as a movie can without employing distracting gimmicks. Told from the point-of-view of the protagonist, Oliver (Ewan McGregor), the narrative follows not only his activities in the present, but plunders his memories of two other distinct eras. However, while in theory the concept of flashing back and forward across the years might seem to invite confusion, writer/director Mike Mills (Thumbsucker) uses readily identifiable cues to keep things clear. The result is an effective portrait of a damaged individual uncertain about the meaning of love and commitment and the two key relationships in his life that teach him lessons about both.

If the tale of a 38-year old man's misadventures could be considered a "coming of age story," that would apply here. Oliver is physically mature but emotionally arrested, unable to hold together a relationship with a woman because of what it requires him to yield. Two events move him toward a more mature outlook on life: the death of his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), from cancer, and his relationship with Anna (Melanie Laurent, best known to American audiences as Shosanna in Inglourious Basterds), a French actress with similar commitment issues.

Growing up, Oliver saw Hal as a cool, distant parent; he was always closer to his mother (Mary Page Keller). At age 75, now a widower, Hal comes out, admitting to his son and the world something only he and his wife had previously known: he is gay. He almost immediately takes a lover, Andy (Goran Visnjic), and becomes more warm and open in his dealings with his son. Hal's death leaves Oliver with a lot of questions and unresolved issues - not to mention the companionship of a dog: his father's best friend. Then he meets Anna and feels an instant and powerful connection, but the need to distance himself asserts itself and he sabotages the relationship before it can get too serious.

Mills' script is smart, moving, and at times funny, with the low-key humor keeping the tone from becoming too somber. Although there are some quirky moments (such as occasionally subtitling the thoughts of the dog), Mills plays things relatively straight. Beginners is partially autobiographical - Hal is based on Mills' father and the relationship between Oliver and Hal echoes the one between the filmmaker and his late parent. The love affair between Oliver and Anna, which is as emotionally effective as the one between father and son, is fictional but no less believable.

As a couple, Oliver and Anna are appealing. Both are flawed individuals but we sense the power of their attraction from the beginning. Their first encounter occurs at a costume party with Oliver dressed as Freud and Anna unable to speak due to laryngitis. As "meet cute" scenes go, this is one of the best I can recall in recent years - it's simultaneously romantic and inventive, forcing these two to not only get past the costumes but also begin their relationship without conversation.

By frequently switching time periods, Mills allows Oliver's past to unfold in parallel with his present, establishing the building blocks of his personality as we see the point at which real growth occurs. He is depicted as a child interacting with his mother. His scenes with the "new" Hal, gay and hale at first then gradually slipping away as the cancer eats away at him, are presented in some detail. Finally, there is his interaction with Anna, as he wins her, loses her, then recognizes - for the first time in his life - his mistake.

Beginners is a small story with a big heart. The movie is rich in character development but short on originality, perhaps because the issues encountered by Oliver are commonplace in modern society. Perhaps this is why it's so easy to relate to him. The film has many of the qualities that appeal to lovers of character-based dramas, with the narrative working to enhance the personality of the protagonist rather than the other way around. Arriving in U.S. theaters amidst the gusty gales of midsummer blockbusters, Beginners offers something more delicate, less bombastic, and decidedly refreshing.

Beginners (United States, 2010)

Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2011-06-17
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content, Profanity, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1