Unlike what the trailer might lead you to believe, 75 year old Hal (Christopher Plummer) isn’t the stereotypically flamboyant gay man acting like he’s been released from a corral and his son Oliver (Ewan McGregor), in turn, isn’t that mopey.
Beginners has a slow start, its first image being a white flower in a vase in Hal’s empty house. Oliver eventually narrates his situation, apparently similar to events that have happened to writer/director Mike Mills, through three, seamlessly interwoven plot lines. One is set in 2003 with the previously mentioned relationship between Hal and Oliver made more complicated by another revelation, Hal’s terminal cancer. There are also flashbacks when Oliver remembers his 1970′s childhood, Hal’s detached workaholic absenteeism means that Hal spends time with the comically forward thinking yet inadvertently frosty Georgia. The third story line introduces Anna (Melanie Laurent), an actress and as these things go, Oliver and her develop a romantic relationship. These plot lines involve relatively happy, extroverted people contrasting against Oliver at his most depressed.
Anna in a Halloween party dressed as a turn of the century man is possibly the most sublime thing in cinema since Annie Hall – this is one of the few films where guests in a Halloween party don’t dress slutty. Beginners feels like a Woody Allen-esque film set in Los Angeles, ironically since Allen’s characters often deride LA. This movie completes its own version of Allen’s checklist – tragicomic romances between gays and between quirky sad-ish adults, ragtime-era ballads, bookstores and so forth, although I’m not saying that Mills is derivative of Allen. I actually like this refreshing LA, the old mixed with the new. The city doesn’t look arid. The dark spaces within the frames look like dulled silver, reflective of Oliver’s cloudy emotions. The car culture isn’t given excessive emphasis although the characters do drive. And since this is a post-Gen X movie, Anna, Oliver and friends dabble in vandalism.
Beginners is not just about a city but also its many generations of people, as Mills through his fictional doppelganger Oliver contextualizes his sorrow as well as his parents’. They’ve experienced the hypocrisies of postwar affluence and heteronormativity, he goes through a generational ‘sadness that his parents never had the time for.’ I’m not sure if he’s right – I want to hear what you think about his assessments too – but I don’t think Mills is trying to get it right. The film instead is a record of Oliver and Mills’ personal journey, their dialogue with the past and realizing that they have to move on.
The actors definitely understand their characters’ place within the binaries of the story as well as the latter’s nuances. Plummer’s Hal tries to be happy despite knowing that the end is near, treating Hal’s discoveries within the gay culture with sober eyes. We can also sympathize with Oliver, despite being a worry wort, because he’s also the film’s voice of sanity and McGregor is generous enough to absorb the narratives and neuroses of his supporting characters. The equally sunny Anna makes sense as Oliver’s girlfriend since they’re both alone and both open up to their problem-tainted pasts. Laurent, in this film, is the real revelation, showcasing her facility within language and versatile emotion, effortlessly charming us while also breaking the audiences’ hearts. She galvanizes the film and gives it, as well as little details in the film, the unexpected. And there’s Hal’s shaggy boyfriend and a less shaggy dog in the movie too. Beginners comes out on a limited release in June 3rd, rolling out to more cities within the same month.