Writer/director Mike Mills’ semi-autobiographical tale Beginners is one of those films that’s hard to pin down what exactly it’s about, and yet it only ever feels as muddled as life itself is muddled. In writing about his own life, Mills risks falling into the trap of cinema-as-therapy that so clearly drowned The Art of Getting By, but he manages to tell an honest and touching story that really explores the loss and loneliness he’s felt to some extent over his entire life.
Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is Mills’ stand-in. His parents were married in 1955 and lived together for 44 years before Oliver’s mother Georgia (Mary Page Keller) died. Six months later, Oliver’s father Hal (Christopher Plummer) decides it’s high time he come out to his son. He’s had enough of being “theoretically gay” and wants to do something about it. Four years later, he dies as well.
Two months later, Oliver meets Anna (Mélanie Laurent) at a party. She’s an actress who flits all around the world for her work, which makes it very easy for her to leave people. Oliver points out that you can stay in one place and still leave people. She’ll be around for a month, which he spends with her and his father’s preternaturally wise Jack Russel terrier, Anthony (Cosmo).
Oliver is still processing his grief, though, and coming to terms with himself for that matter. We flash back along with him to the four years his father lived out of the closet; joining up with gay pride groups, having a much younger boyfriend (Goran Visnjic), slowly succumbing to his own lung cancer. We also flash back to Oliver’s childhood (played by Keegan Boos) and his memories of his mother.
Hal grew up in a time when he was told that his homosexuality was a mental illness; he had to hide in bathroom stalls to have sex. He saw no way to live with someone he really loved. Georgia herself grew up half-Jewish in a time when she could still be kicked off of her school’s swim team for it. And so two lonely people came together and had a lonely — though not completely unhappy — family together.
Oliver grew up watching his parents — particularly his father — who didn’t really love each other, and always feared he’d be the same way. It’s not unfounded, as we see McGregor and Plummer affecting many of the same mannerisms as father and son. But the upshot is that Oliver always leaves, or lets his relationships fall apart because he just doesn’t know how to really be with anyone.
Anna is lonely too, though her background is never as fully explored as Oliver’s is. She says that half of the people think things will never work out, and the other half believe in magic. Oliver is in the first camp, and it seems Anna probably is as well. But somehow, this time, each of them finds in the other someone who will listen to all of their pent-up baggage and still not run away screaming.
McGregor and Laurent are both excellent in communicating their sheer terror at the prospect of a meaningful relationship after such a long time of being alone, even with someone else. They each present one of the most real characters put on film, and each deserve critical recognition for their performances.
But it’s Mills who deserves the greatest praise for putting such a personal story out into the world, and for presenting it with a perfect balance of wry humor and heartfelt anguish. It’s his deft hand and careful, reserved style that prevents the film from degenerating into histrionics. There are no dramatic climaxes, no shouting matches, no tearful confrontations in the rain. Life just goes on, and we watch two people try to find shelter from the storm.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.