Directed by Mike Mills (2010) Starring: Ewan McGregor, Melanie Laurent, Christopher Plummer
Beginners is a very zen movie, which is a little strange considering how sad it is. It’s just a very relaxed sadness, what it means to feel so disconnected from life, but finding a way back to it. Oliver (McGregor) describes his life after his father’s death, four years after his father comes out of the closet. He adopts his dog Arthur and reflects on his childhood, the history of sadness, and falling in love with French actress Anna (Laurent).
It’s weird to call it a quiet film since the soundtrack is very present, but that’s what it feels like. Most of the emotional tug is subtle, or quirky without being too saccharine. While Oliver and Anna behave typically over-the-top, it becomes endearing as two damaged people find a viable connection. For example, they meet at a Halloween party, where Oliver is dressed as Sigmund Freud, carrying around Arthur. They manage to have a conversation, even though Anna has lost her voice. And off we go. Oliver talks to Arthur, pretending that he can hear the dog’s responses (subtitles help us see into his thoughts) and leaves graffiti of “historical consciousness” rather than simple tags. Anna lives in hotels and empty apartments, doesn’t answer her father’s phone calls, but also thinks that she can hear Arthur talking to her.
The film is cut between straight narrative of 2003 with Oliver’s reflections on life in the 1950s, when his parents got married and how happiness and sadness was portrayed in media. Static images hang against a black background, or else switch phrenetically as Oliver describes them. When his father is diagnosed with lung cancer, a quarter appears, later broken up into two dimes and one nickel, then twenty-five pennies as if understanding the term “a quarter-sized lump” can just as easily be broken up the same way.
For awhile, I couldn’t see how Hal’s (Plummer) sexuality fit into the picture. As a character he joins gay activist groups and passionately tells Oliver about Harvey Milk. It didn’t seem appropriate to have homosexuality handled in such a political, rather than personal, manner, but it makes sense. Hal was looking for the community he couldn’t have after forty-plus years of marriage. He is always determined to have someone to the point where he is worried about Oliver winding up alone because he won’t settle.
It’s a well-made, off-center film that is worth a trip to the local theater. While it’s sad, it’s also filled with infinite hope.