Mike Mills is an example of that breed of cool indie artists who has turned his hand to music videos, album-cover art and edgy films. As such, his semi-autobiographical drama/romantic-comedy (drom-com?), Beginners, is quirky, visually enticing and poignant. Months after his mother dies, graphic designer, Oliver’s world turns upside down when his father, Hal, reveals that he has been hiding his true self for the past 40 odd years and is, in fact, gay. The story that follows shows the two men’s quest to find happiness after years of lies and fear. This is a monumental discovery for the artist; it improves his relationship with his father; changes his opinion of his parents marriage; brings new meaning to his mother’s outlandish behaviour during his childhood; and forces him to rethink his already shaky views on love and relationships.
The film follows three periods in Oliver’s life: his childhood; his last years with his father; and the time directly proceeding Hal’s death. These three periods are linked thanks to Mills’ jumps in the narrative. Through Oliver’s voiceover and slide-shows of photographs the different time-frames are contextualised. We get a picture of the wider world and the more intimate one at the moments when his parents met and married, when his father came out and after his death. These moments are presented to provide a break in the more dramatic and emotional parts of the film. Just as the subtitles that allow Hal’s Jack Russell terrier, Arthur, to provide a wry commentary on certain events and provides an example of truth that only an outsider could provide. On paper, this technique sounds like one quirk too far but in Mill’s experienced hands it works wonderfully.
The three periods explain Oliver’s character and his connection with love. The moment that affects them all is the moment when a father has to explain to his son that, despite being married for almost 40 years, he is, and has always known that he is, gay. Oliver accepts his father’s news but finds if difficult to come to terms with the idea that such a natural desire needed to remain hidden for so long. Christopher Plummer is spectacular in the role, something that can be seen through his barrage of awards. The sense of relief and freedom that he portrays after Hal reveals all to his son is refreshing and not overly sentimental. The moments we see of Hal embracing his new life are handled sensitively and convey the pride that Mills felt after his own father’s revelation.
Goran Visnjic stars as Hal’s much younger lover Andy. The character is a removal from Visnjic’s usual roles but he plays him with tenderness and a charming naivety and innocence that make it easy to see why Hal loves him. It is seeing his father finally find happiness that prompts a change in Oliver. He is uncomfortable around Andy, not because he is gay or so much younger than Hal, but because he cannot understand their intimacy. As we come to learn, Oliver has a problem letting himself get close to others and is constantly waiting for something to go wrong or someone to get hurt. This is rather hastily explained through some brief flashbacks to his childhood where his frustrated, unfulfilled and unhappy mother uses humour and eccentricity to conceal her true feelings and protect her family. Brief scenes of kisses that lack intimacy and real feeling are repeated and followed by moments of childish and playful behaviour. Just as Mills’ uses visual aids to break up the moments of intense drama, Georgia attempts to suppress her inner turmoil.
It is the knowledge that the intelligent and witty mother he remembered was in fact a deeply troubled woman that shows Oliver how unhealthy his idea of love is and how important it is that he change. Ewan McGregor is charming enough as Oliver and his burgeoning relationship with French actress, Anna (Mélanie Laurent) is sort of adorable. Although, he is a rather placid character; merely accepting the role of narrator with little to add emotionally. We never see him react to anything with any real emotion. His healthiest relationship being with Arthur whose personality has been created by Oliver himself. The moments he spends with Anna are surrounded by shots of him sitting in his office working on his melancholic and, quite frankly, insipid, art project ‘The History of Sadness’. To counter this, Laurent does a wonderful job playing the free and easy spirit that sets out to heal Oliver’s heart. Their relationship is undeniably very lovely and twee; the pair form a group, along with Hal’s terrier, Arthur, and merrily avoid the real world. The pair soon find that, despite wanting to avoid it, they have unwittingly got themselves into a relationship. They have little left to do but accept their fate and go about their business.
This is a narrative that we have seen countless times before and, even considering Mills’ artful direction and narrative, eventually starts to feel staid and self-indulgent. The pair are emotionally damaged and hope that finding a kindred spirit will provide a cure. It is the moments that focus on Oliver’s last months with his father that provide the most engaging and fulfilling moments. They are over too soon in order to make way for the meaningful journey that Oliver must travel along. There isn’t really anything to dislike about this film but it is certainly harder to connect with Oliver and Anna in the same way that you do instantly with Hal. After their insanely charming meeting, where Oliver is dressed as Freud and Anna is rendered mute, I found my interest in their journey to stability waning. Although, thanks to Mills’ direction and tendency to flit back and forth throughout, I enjoyed the film despite these slower moments. This film deals with some difficult subjects and it does so in a sensitive and artistic manner. Add to that, some great performances and a fantastic four-legged star, Mills’ film is a winner in spite of its slight annoyances.