Beginners is a film about a father and son and their new beginnings. They are on different paths to finding love and acceptance, but seem to echo the same risk that needs to be taken to find the path and its outcome. Ewan McGregor plays Oliver, a guy who has past relationships in spades. Christopher Plummer plays Hal, Oliver’s father, who, after his wife passes away, comes out to his son as a gay man. Mind you, Hal is 75 years old. Hal does not just want to be kind of gay, but seriously out there, mingling at the gay clubs, having sex and a boyfriend.
The film mixes three different periods of time. When Oliver was little, he observed the effect of his parents’ relationship on his mother. There are clips of his mom, Georgia (Mary Page Keller) receiving kiss after kiss from Hal before leaving for work. Georgia always wants a little more from the kiss. During this period, it was cute to see the interactions between Georgia and Oliver. I guess you could say that Georgia was a bit eccentric, as was seen when she and Oliver would go to the museum to visit Hal.
The second time period is during which Hal comes out to Oliver. Hal delves into every corner of life the gay lifestyle has to offer. Hal eventually gets a boyfriend named Andy (Goran Visnjic) who is decades younger than Hal. You would think that Oliver would have some resentment toward his father for keeping such a big thing from him his entire life, but none of that is evident. Oliver mainly wants his father to be happy. Four years after coming out as gay, Hal dies of cancer.
The third time period is the one after Hal passes away. Oliver has to deal with getting rid of his father’s stuff and he has to take on the responsibility of caring for Hal’s Jack Russell terrier, Arthur. He also has to come to terms with his father’s death. He sinks into a depression. Some of his coworkers and friends drag him to a Halloween party where he meets a woman who cannot speak because of laryngitis. They communicate back and forth with her writing on a notepad. They take off for her hotel room and spend the night together (no sex, sorry). Eventually, Oliver finds out her name is Anna (Melanie Laurent), she is French, and she is an actress.
The three periods of time co-mingle in the film. It was a bit confusing at the beginning to figure out what was going on, but once that was sorted, the three time periods worked well together.
Since seeing Beginners, I would describe it as a simple film in terms of story and the look of it. There are no convoluted plot lines or extraordinary special effects. I found it rather beautiful and fresh. Periods of silence are used well. They are not covered up by a musical score in the background. The use of Mike Mills’ graphic artist background is evident. It gives uniqueness to the film. The parts of the film where Oliver goes through what certain things (women, families, the sky, the president, etc.) looked like in 1955, 2003, and other years added to the artistic feel of the film.
What many moviegoers may not realize is that Beginners is semi-autobiographical. I myself did not know this until after seeing the film, and just prior to sitting down with director Mike Mills for an interview at the South by Southwest Film Festival (SXSW). Mills’ father came out to him six months after his mother passed away, at age 75. Like Hal, his father wanted to go all out and really be gay, have sex, have a boyfriend. He passed away four and a half years after coming out. Beginners is his version of what happened, and also very much a tribute to how his father lived those last few years.
The acting in Beginners is pretty great. Christopher Plummer as Hal has the best part because Hal is experiencing everything as a new man, even though he is in his seventies. He is taking it all in, excited to experience this new lifestyle. Plummer also has some of the more humorous lines in the film. The flashbacks to Hal are my favorite parts of the film. Ewan McGregor is fantastic as well. Hearing Mike Mills talk about some of the preparation he went through for his role was fascinating. I guess as an actor, if you are portraying the director’s version of himself, it may be a lot of pressure to get the character right. Goran Visnjic is a surprise in the character of Andy, Hal’s boyfriend. I did not know that Visnjic was in the film, and, trust me, this is a completely different role for him. His hair, his mannerisms, and his accent are all changed and will not remind you at all of ER’s Dr. Luka Kovac. I have not previously seen Melanie Laurent in any other films, but she has the acting chops to be able to be silent for the beginning of her role as Anna. The non-Homo sapien actor, Cosmo, has a pretty good role as Arthur as well which, of course, comes across in subtitles. I am impressed that any animal trainer can get a dog to do what Cosmo did in Beginners.
I really liked Beginners and knowing the background of the film made me like it even more. While being distributed by Focus Features, the film has the feel of an independent movie. It is an original story, albeit an autobiographical one, that combines itself with unique way of presentation using images and drawings throughout the film. It came across to me as a simple, beautiful film that does not have any equal in terms of the style of film making. I can see many different age groups enjoying it, and I would wholeheartedly recommend seeing it. Beginners is a breath of fresh air that the blockbusters out there cannot match.
I give Beginners 4 “The Sads” out of 5.