Beginners (Mills, 2010)

Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor

I’m sort of picky about films. I’m not a movie snob–well at least I try not to be, and I enjoy a wide spectrum of movies. But, I rarely commit to a movie. I rarely get hooked. I usually recommend films with a caveat about how it’s not great. So, when I say I am over the moon with a film–I mean it. And I’m so over the moon with Mike Mills’ Beginners. As a result I’m left to try and figure out why this movie made the cut and so many others didn’t.

The film focuses on Oliver, played understated and simply by Ewan Mcgregor, and his father Hal, who has recently died of cancer. Hal, played by Christopher Plummer, is also a man who came out of the closet at 75 after his wife, Oliver’s mother, died. So when Hal dies he leaves behind a young boyfriend and several rainbow coalition and gay-pride groups–in addition to Oliver. One thing I love about the film is that this is just part of the story. The film does not focus on the adjustment to Hal’s late coming out; instead, it manifests in Oliver’s understanding of his parents’ marriage and what that means for him and his relationships with people. Hal’s struggle with his sexuality is just part of what the film is really addressing: love, life, death, how we begin and end and what we do in between the two–you know, the little things.

Because the film is quietly philosophical, I couldn’t help comparing it to The Tree of Life, which I just recently saw. Both films focus on childhood and the damage and/or stability it causes, parent-child relationships, the differences between a healthy relationship/marriage and an unhealthy one. The Tree of Life is a magnum opus devoted to contemplating and musing over these issues. It tries very hard to be a masterpiece, to be art. There’s a fundamental flaw in that sort of film or work: a masterpiece is one because it somehow transcends our definition of art, not just because it attempts to meet it. Beginners knows this and subsequently makes no attempt to be great–and yet it is.

The film opens with Oliver silently sorting, throwing away, and keeping his father’s belongings; then he begins to narrate the film, which he will do sporadically throughout. Oliver’s narration is what connects and sorts out the scenes from his past and present, which are shown to the audience simultaneously. This is part of what makes the film work. Rather than doing a linear narrative or a present and flashback narrative, the film shows scenes from Oliver’s past as he remembers them, when he remembers them. Sometimes scenes are repeated or explained more than once. For instance, one of the first “past” scenes we get is of Hal telling Oliver that he is gay and has been his whole life. We see Hal sitting across a table in a purple sweater; then Oliver says, “I always remember dad wearing a purple sweater, but he was actually wearing a robe.” As a result, we then see Hal in a robe saying what he just said while he was in the purple sweater–then we see him in a grey sweater and are essentially shown three versions of a memory. Each of the scenes are very alike but slightly different. The film uses this technique throughout, emphasizing both the power of impression and memory and its illusive nature. Sometimes the conflation of past and present in a film can be confusing for the viewer, and sometimes that is purposeful, but not in this case. We experience Oliver’s past and present as he experiences them, which is articulated not just through his narration but also in his illustrations.

Oliver works as a graphic designer successful because of one particular technique that he cannot seem to shake off due to customer demand. We see many cartoons/illustrations as Oliver draws them and talks about them. He draws one series about the history of sadness, which gives the audience a close look at Oliver’s feelings and mental processes. But his drawings are satirical and paradoxically light-hearted in lieu of their subject matter. It is through his illustrations that we see Oliver try to understand his father’s death, his own life, and his relationships.

However, I can see how this illustration technique could seem distant or just corny in other films. I think it works here partially because of McGregor’s performance. He is aloof and sad while also being caring and endearingly quiet-natured. We also buy the illustrations and how they muse over life because of the glimpses of his relationships that we are given. We see him care for his ailing father, grieve for his death, be his eccentric mother’s (played perfectly by Mary Page Keller) companion as a boy, and have a deep affection for Arthur, his father’s Jack Russell terrier–arguably one of the best characters in the film. The guy we see reading to his father and playing dead with his mother seems like a guy who would work out his issues by drawing satirical cartoons. But Oliver, like all of us the film ultimately claims, is a beginner, and as a beginner he has not quite figured out how to be happy in the time between the beginning and the end. He has had a series of unsuccessful relationships which he eventually says he forced to fail before they would fail on their own. He realizes this, and inevitably tries to change, in his relationship with Anna. The film follows their relationship from its beginning, and it is Oliver’s attempt to let Anna in that prompts many of his memories and aids in his grief of his father. Anna is very much like Oliver’s mother, and in accepting the fact that his relationship does not have to be like his parents’ he finally lets Anna in; he finally truly gives it a go.

Ultimately, this quietly beautiful and introspective film claims that to begin means to look at everything: life, death, and all the shit and glory in between and say, “why not?”

Katherine Richards is a graduate student at Dusquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and a contributor to Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volume 2.

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