Directed By: Mike Mills
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Mélanie Laurent, Goran Visnjic, Cosmo
There’s great danger in opting to stray from the conventional linear storytelling method. Not only do you run the risk of lacking a constant pace and confusing your viewers, but simply forcing them to think too much. Oddly enough, that isn’t the case in the least with Beginners. Yes, the piece gets the wheels in your head turning, but it uses its main character as a vehicle so, curiously, it’s the character that winds up doing the thinking for you, making the film a beautifully consuming experience.
Ewan McGregor is Oliver, a 30-something guy who was once funny and made for good company, but now walks around with a grey cloud over his head and a Jack Russell named Arthur by his side as a result of the passing of his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer). It isn’t until Oliver’s pals drag him out to a Halloween party that Oliver finds a little light in this world, an actress named Anna (Mélanie Laurent). However, with the wonders of budding love come memories from his past, namely ones of his unusual and inhibited mother and the final days of his father during which Hal puts to use his newfound status of being out of the closet.
Beginners is a nonlinear tale that roots itself in the present, focusing on Oliver and Anna’s relationship, but regularly jumps back to the past. We get mere glimpses of a young Oliver by his mother’s side as well as a more in-depth look at the days following his 75-year-old father’s official change in sexual orientation to the discovery of a cancerous mass in his lung up until his eventual death. Writer-director Mike Mills does a beautiful job interweaving every stage of Oliver’s life so as to enrich the character and make every scene in the film quite multidimensional.
That’s where Beginners gets its steam, Oliver. Throughout the entire piece, while supporting characters are still quite prominent, between the script and the storytelling via the camera, it’s made quite clear that we’re meant to experience these events from Oliver’s prospective. Rather than merely watch as Hal bops around with his younger boyfriend, Andy (Goran Visnjic), as Anna reveals her past and as Arthur trails his new master, we experience everything through Oliver. You’re not judging these other characters using your own thoughts and beliefs, rather Oliver’s, honestly feeling the loss, pain and love every step of the way.
Combine Mills’ bold authorial expressivity with downright sincere performances, and it’s ultimately impossible not to become fully engulfed in this world. While the general public looms in the background, albeit mostly unseen, the environment is quite intimate, which is another beautiful result of being with the character of Oliver on such a personal level as well as Mills’ unusual storytelling methods. Mills often breaks from the narrative to flash through a series of stills, setting the stage for everyday life of a particular era as well as old family photos placing Oliver, his parents and even Anna in those time periods. Between this technique as well as Mills’ sparse use of extras, we get a well-rounded backdrop that never takes the attention away from the primary players, only strengthens them.
And, of course, much of the power of these characters comes from the actors themselves. While every single one of them gives 100%, this is McGregor’s show and he seizes the opportunity with everything he has. McGregor becomes Oliver and, in a way, the viewer becomes Oliver a bit, too. While that does create a degree of frustration in that Oliver struggles through a rather depressing period, it ultimately results in a more rewarding payoff. It’s easy to not like Oliver and it would have been easy for Mills to trip up in his sadness, making Oliver such a miserable guy you can’t stand to spend another minute with him. Then again, Mills also could have done the tale an injustice by having him do a complete turnaround and top Beginners off with a pretty red ribbon. However, Mills manages to pull it off making an endlessly interesting combination of the two, which ultimately, forces the audience to ponder the situation just as much as Oliver.
The circumstances wouldn’t be half as fascinating if it weren’t for the colorful people in Oliver’s life. You’re on Plummer’s side as Hal from the start. He’s a loving father, but, as we’re directly connected to Oliver’s train of thought, his sexual orientation is a little hard to digest and that directly stems to Visnjic’s character. While Hal is very much out of the closet, he’s modest. Andy, on the other hand, is flamboyant and a little on the strange side. While his antics can be odd and a little irritating, Visnjic gives him the slightest hint of honesty so as to not lose the audience completely.
The stakes are even higher for Anna. Mills makes her out to be the quintessential perfect girl from the start, but does so in a highly unusual way, by giving her laryngitis and making her first date with Oliver a half-silent one. From there, their relationship maintains that unusual dichotomy that ultimately develops into something that creates a sense that the relationship could fall apart at any second. As for Anna herself, she’s a real person. She has problems of her own, but they aren’t presented in an overbearing, “look at me” manner. She isn’t someone just looking for attention; she’s truly hurting, just like Oliver.
And just because he isn’t human, doesn’t mean Arthur isn’t deserving of some attention here. He is just as much of a presence as Anna, Hal or even Oliver for that matter. Arthur brings out a degree of warmth in every character of this film and seeing them all interact with the four-legged star, actually translates to stronger relationships between the human characters.
Thanks to the cleverly crafted script and the cast’s ability to bring the pages to life in such a truthful manner, Beginners becomes a piece that you can really feel. I often preach that I go to the theater to have fun. Why would someone waste two hours of his or life to suffer through a character’s pain? Well, Mills just put me in my place because while Beginners is far from the feel-good movie of the year, it uses deep and at times upsetting emotion in the best way possible. I sympathized with Oliver’s plight and, to my surprise, something about that made me feel good.
By Perri Nemiroff