Beginners
This story line in this film might sound way too agenda-driven to be enjoyable: adult sonís mother dies of cancer, then his father announces that he is coming out of the closet. After 43 years of marriage? Then, after a brief fling with the gay lifestyle in general and a younger man in particular, his father, too, dies of cancer. Meanwhile, the grieving son struggles with the idea of making himself vulnerable to a new relationship.
Doesnít sound very amusing, does it? Ah, but Director and Writer Mike Mills has created a quirky, funny, lovely little valentine thatís fun to watch, despite the very serious subject matter.
The casting is superb. Christopher Plummer plays Hal, the Dad, with just the right combination of irascible curmudgeon, doting Dad, repressed plutocrat, and likeable adventurer. Ewan McGregor, as his son Oliver, conveys a complex rainbow of emotions (pun intended): shocked that he had no idea who his Dad really was, genuine affection for his once-distant father, still sorting through distant memories of his pretty-but-sad Mom, obsessed with grieving, even at work, and content, somehow, with solitary living and long silences.
But Oliverís social awareness is awakened first by inheriting his Dadís dog, a Jack Russell terrier, who canít stand for Oliver to be out of his sight. So Oliver just takes him everywhere. And finds he can talk to the dog easily. This is where Director/Writer Mills has a little fun by training the camera on the dog and inserting subtitle dialogue from the dog. (OK, itís funny the first few times, but it gets a little overused.)
Oliver has a couple of friends who insist that he come with them to a costume party, where he disguises himself as Sigmund Freud, pretending to ďanalyzeĒ everyone who wants a private session (and conveniently not having to do much talking himself).
Thatís when he meets Anna (Melanie Laurent), who has to write her responses, because she has laryngitis, which of course pierces Oliverís carefully-constructed defensive mechanisms. That, and sheís impossible not to look at. Sheís a model/actress who is so accustomed to being away, and leaving people, that sheís managed to make herself almost completely isolated. But sheís smart and funny and engaging. They play a game where they pretend they are aliens, describing their environment for the first time. They are both very patient with each other about self-revelation. They both allow long silences, without the need to fill them with idle chatter. They both appreciate old music and good books. They take it very slowly, but they are obviously developing a quiet affection for each other. But heís used to leaving people, also. And both seem afraid as the relationship progresses. Like they donít really trust happiness, which, of course, then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Meanwhile, Oliver continues to process the death and dying of his father, through lots of flashbacks, and his end-of-life gay lifestyle. Halís ďboyfriendĒ would bring him surprise gifts, like a grasshopper (which turned out to be pretend) or a caterpillar (which turned out to be real). The gay guys have a fireworks party where they yell expletives as loud as they can. Just because. Director/writer Mills will interrupt the narrative to show us images on the screen of how people dressed in certain eras, who the President was, what products were advertised. Heíll show visuals of inanimate objects, give a house tour (this is my crowded bathroom). As if his attention continues to re-focus throughout this story, which feels more subjective than linear, anyway.
But thereís a deep sensitivity here, as well as a playful sense of humor, that endears the viewer to all these struggling characters, none of whom can quite figure out who they are, but after a while you realize that thatís one of the interesting parts about life---continually searching, seeking, observing, marveling, and wondering. As if weíre all just Beginners.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Co-Pastor, United Presbyterian Church, Greenville , Texas