Director: Mike Mills
Writer: Mike Mills
Stars: Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Mélanie Laurent
Studio: Focus Features
Oliver wanted to continue the conversation. So he did, well after Hal had died.
Hal came out of the closet at age 75 when his wife of 44 years was taken by cancer. Oliver, Hal’s son, accepted the announcement meekly but it wasn’t until Hal came down with terminal cancer himself that Oliver and Hal began to speak honestly. The conversation didn’t end when Hal was also taken.
Beginners is directed by Mike Mills, who hasn’t made a feature film since 2005’s Thumbsucker. And this time, Mills drew on his own life for the story of Beginners. Like Hal, Mills’ father also came out of the closet after the death of his mother. Cancer took both of his parents and there’s a subtle jab at smoking in the film. But _Beginners _is not a message movie; it’s an ambitious play on coming-of-age late in life, of course for Hal but also very much for Oliver, and perhaps for Mills himself.
Ewan McGregor plays Oliver in a pinched way, meek as described above, but very much living a solitary existence, with little passion except for his work as a graphic artist. Christopher Plummer plays Hal as a father who has always been in control and now lets go in a major way. Plummer is perhaps the ultimate movie dad, having inhabited the role of the iconic Captain Von Trapp way back in 1965’s unforgettable The Sound of Music. Here as Hal, he’s another loving father who did what he had to do for so long that only now, at the end of his life, does he live for himself. But by showing another side of his being, he offers great life lessons for Oliver.
While the big issues hang over the story of Beginners, Mills smartly leaves room for humor and provocative romance. Oliver inherits his father’s dog, an energetic Jack Russell, and Mills uses the dog as a clever narrative device, having Oliver converse with the pet as though it were a member of the human family. And in its way, the dog answers back.
There are three romances in the film: Hal and his wife Georgia (Mary Page Keller), who we see in flashback and never really in the same scene as Hal; Oliver and Anna, an actress (Inglourious Basterds’ Mélanie Laurent) that he meets after Hal dies; and Hal’s lover Andy (Goran Visnjic). It’s the last relationship that’s most telling for Oliver, who watches dispassionately as this much younger and awkward man kisses and embraces his father. Oliver never judges the unique pairing, but never fully accepts it either. And Mills understands these feelings so well, because he no doubt experienced them himself. Oliver is not homophobic. He just doesn’t understand love. Not yet.
Visually, Mills, a schooled commercial graphic artist, populates his story with rich imagery. Through commercial art he makes comparisons between the then and the now. We see photos and advertisements from Hal’s time contrasted with those of Oliver’s. This fills the movie with questions that beg to be revisited with repeat viewings. This is where the script takes the most risks, covering what could have been too much ground. But remarkably, Mills holds it all together, using an unstuck timeline in which Oliver revisits his past while attempting to live his present and capture the heart of Anna. The movie is ambitious. And it involves Oliver having that continuing post-mortem conversation.
And none of it would have worked at all without the right cast. Much attention should be paid to McGregor, who was once a Jedi and could have done anything. Heck, he’ll always be a Jedi, but with 2009’s I Love You Phillip Morris and now this role, McGregor shows that he’s able to play weak and emotionally affected better than most any actor of his generation. And his performance may have been enough, but alongside Plummer’s turn as Hal the movie just seems to radiate importance. The actual narrative may be narrow, but the comment on love is all encompassing. Edgy, sure, but provocation gives way to universal truth. Love is waiting to be found, if only you’ll let it into your life.
Some will come away focused on what could be called a tragic marriage of Hal and Georgia. Hal lived a lie, some may mutter. But if we live long enough, we may get to live two lives. Both fulfilling. Both very much worth living.
Writer/director Mills is constantly working. He just designed the cover for the new Beastie Boys album. But he’s not quick to make feature motion pictures. And with his second narrative feature made years after his first, it’s interesting to speculate as to why. He’s continuing his own conversation and using the cinematic medium to do it. And we’re lucky enough to be permitted join him.