Beginners: Love, Loss, and Telepathic Dogs
Beginners is the type of cutesy indie flick that usually rubs me the wrong way. When a romantic film gets very quirky and cute, I tend to feel the machinations of the writer’s manipulation and I begin to resent how hard he’s working to force me to feel something. However, despite this film’s sentimentality and the number of devices writer/director Mike Mills is throwing at the wall, the overwhelming majority sticks to you and sucks you in. Beginners is a lovely movie about history, family, and those moments that change your life. The script is witty and the direction is cohesive, but I doubt the movie would spring to life the way it does without the outstanding performances, in particular by Christopher Plummer.
The film takes place during three different times in the life of Oliver (Ewan MacGregor). In the earliest, as a child, he remembers moments spent with his mother (Mary Page Keller), which usually are somewhat bizarre. We understand why from the scenes in the next timeline, after his mother’s death, when his 75-year-old father (Christopher Plummer) reveals that he’s always been gay, and immediately starts a relationship with a much younger man. We watch the final few months of Oliver’s relationship with his father with this new knowledge, knowing from the third timeline that he will die soon. In the third timeline, he sorts through his father’s stuff, takes his dog (who he talks to via telepathy at points), and finds a woman (Melanie Laurent) at a party whom he quickly falls for.
Several of these plot points– especially the father’s coming out– could come across as “wacky,” which is absolutely the worst word you want to read in a review of an indie romance. Mills’ script gives the film the basis in truth it deserves, and with good reason: his own father came out of the closet when he was 75. The movie depicts good caring people interacting earnestly with one another, which is a rarity in film. Oliver is confused with how to deal with a newly gay and dying father, but he respects him enough to make his own choices and he tries to find peace with what he’s observed his whole life from his parents. Plus, he is his parents’ son– the movie weaves little traits from the parents into Oliver’s behavior in a subtle and seamless way. We see Oliver play a game the night he meets the girl, and we see the same game with a far different meaning later when his mother plays it with him. The timelines weaving in and out make the film a tad disjointed, but it’s all purposeful for telling the story in the clearest and most interesting way.
The romance is handled with similar delicacy and thoughtfulness (though Mills denies it’s based on his own relationship with director Miranda July). In any other film, the way in which they met would have been sickening. They meet at a costume party– he’s dressed as Freud, she as Chaplin– and she has severe laryngitis so she can’t speak, making the Chaplin costume all the more fitting. The idea of two costumed characters meeting as one can only communicate by writing words on a pad may sound obnoxiously cute, and I suppose it is. The dialogue manages to be revealing in a natural way, and certainly Ewan MacGregor and Melanie Laurent are masters in the art of depicting earnest longing. I can’t think of another actress in particular who could’ve pulled off that meet scene without coming off as an obnoxiously precocious Natalie-Portman-in-Garden-State quirky pixie. Laurent, who was one of the better parts of Inglourious Basterds, uses those same haunting eyes and puts them to great use here, and MacGregor, who does his usual strong work without falling back on his tendency for puppy dog eyes in these types of films, has great chemistry with her.
The true heart of the film lies in Christopher Plummer’s performance. It’s a tricky thing to muster, the ability to immediately garner our sympathies from the second you step onto the screen– trickier still when we learn the moment your wife died that you come out of the closet as if a weight was lifted from your shoulders the second she died. We learn the complexity of their marriage over time, and we see the joy exuding from Plummer every step of the way; the freedom from not living a lie is shared with the audience. We watch MacGregor observe Plummer as he begins his life of love, and then we watch MacGregor as he begins his– the structure compliments us as we watch men learning to embrace the possibility of the future. Plummer was Oscar nominated for the FIRST TIME (!!!) last year for a film that had no chance of winning. Here, he’s more than earned a nomination, and hopefully he’ll be given a solid chance since he’s been one of the better actors alive for two decades now. Beginners is a enchanting and moving indie, perfect for dates, for laughs, or for anyone who likes good movies.