Life, Love Studied in Mike Mills’ Beginners
- Susan Ellingburg Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- Updated May 07, 2013
DVD Release Date: November 15, 2011
Theatrical Release Date: June 3, 2011 (limited); June 10, 2011 (wider)
Rating: R (for language and some sexual content)
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Run Time: 105 min.
Director: Mike Mills
Actors: Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, and Mélanie Laurent
After Oliver’s mother dies, his father Hal has a confession to make: he’s gay. Always has been. His wife knew even before they married; she thought she could “fix it.” She couldn’t. Now a sprightly seventy-five-year-old widower, Oliver’s dad has decided, “I don’t want to be just theoretically gay, I want to do something about it.”
Not the easiest thing for a son to hear, even one who knew his parents’ marriage was less than ideal. His dad throws himself into the gay lifestyle—he becomes politically active, begins hosting gay movie nights, and falls for a sultry, young stud. (He also rewrites Jesus’ life story, because the original version was “too violent.”) Oliver handles this remarkably well. His own relationships—with women, Oliver is decidedly heterosexual—not so much.
Most conservative viewers would not consider this a family-friendly film yet, at its heart, Beginners is the story of a son’s love for his father. His dad’s story is told in flashbacks; we meet Oliver shortly after Hal loses his battle with cancer. Oliver, grief-stricken, is trying to make sense of what’s left of his world. The story’s deliberate pace feels like the fog that settles over the newly-bereaved; it never quite drags, but you wouldn’t call it swift, by any means.
That adds a nice touch of realism to Oliver’s eventual romance. He and Anna meet at a costume party and immediately click, but they’re both so emotionally challenged that the relationship moves in fits and starts. Their courtship is almost quaint; the two spend time roller skating, learning each other’s stories, hanging out, walking the dog.
That dog almost steals the show. Arthur was Hal’s dog; in one poignant moment, Oliver explains to the Jack Russell terrier that he’s now going to live at Oliver’s house and proceeds to give him a formal tour of his new home, room by room. Arthur and Oliver quickly become inseparable; we even occasionally see Arthur’s thoughts via subtitle.
The performances of all three main characters—four if you count Mary Page Keller’s brief appearances as Oliver’s slightly unstable mother, five if you count Arthur—are all stellar. Ewan McGregor (Nanny McPhee Returns) hits all the right notes as the sad, confused Oliver trying to reconcile the childhood image of his formal father with the gay bon vivant his father becomes. Christopher Plummer (The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus) is charming as Hal, reveling in his new-found freedom of expression. And Mélanie Laurent’s Anna is fascinating to watch as she works to overcome her own emotional issues and connect with Oliver.
The story is punctured at intervals by image collages as Oliver speaks directly to the audience saying, “This is what [fill in the blank] looks like.” You get the impression he’s trying to get it clear in his own mind as much as anything. Beginners is based on writer/director Mike Mills' own life story; perhaps that’s what he’s trying to do as well.
- Drugs/Alcohol: Multiple party scenes with alcohol, no overt drug use.
- Language/Profanity: The f-word (multiple times), s-word, he**, and Jesus’ name used as a curse.
- Sex/Nudity: Male/male kissing and cuddling, ditto male/female; brief partial female nudity; (male/female) couple shown in bed but not actively engaged in the act; illustration from Joy of Sex and discussion of the contents; a painting that could be considered lewd; self-described “horny”.
Violence: Random acts of graffiti, but no life forms harmed.