Beginners is the kind of movie that makes you ask, why can’t every movie be this charming, funny, affecting, emotionally rich, superbly cast, and visually inventive? This question is all the more relevant because, at least superficially, there’s nothing remotely original about Beginners‘ plot or themes. Mike Mills’ semi-autobiographical film is about a thirtysomething white dude in Los Angeles (Oliver, played by Ewan MacGregor) who finally gets over his commitment phobia when confronted by the transience of life, a lesson that comes in the form of his father’s death. The most notable thing about the movie — arguably its main selling point — is that Oliver’s elderly father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), comes out to his son six months after being widowed, and spends his few remaining years as a vivacious and politically active gay man. Like last year’s Blue Valentine (one of my favorite films of 2010), Beginners is a nonlinear collage of key moments between Oliver and his father, his new love Anna (the luminous Mélanie Laurent), or his Jack Russell terrier Arthur, who silently grieves for Hal as much as Oliver does.
If you haven’t seen the movie and groaned while reading the last sentence, I wouldn’t blame you. I would’ve groaned too, or at least rolled my eyes, were I not so thoroughly won over by Beginners‘ not insignificant displays of gratuitous adorableness. And the scenes with the dog aren’t even the worst offenders. The shaky romance between Oliver and Anna is identifiably real(istic), yet undeniably twee — enough for one ogreish fellow theater-goer to groan ughhhh loudly and copiously during every other scene between them. Oliver takes Anna, a French actress with a dating history similar to Oliver’s, on cutesy dates involving roller-skating in hotel hallways and graffiti-ing about love. Compared to those scenes, the semi-serious ones between Oliver and Arthur, who had been Hal’s until his death, are relatively restrained in their sentimentality and whimsy.
But the relationship at the emotional center of the film is undeniably the fraught one between Oliver and Hal. As a younger man, Hal had had trysts with other young men, but was told by a psychiatrist that his homosexuality was a mental illness. He married Oliver’s mother Georgia (Mary Page Keller) not to stay in the closet, but because she convinced him that she can “fix” him. Oliver traces his loneliness and fear of commitment to his parents’ inevitably unhappy marriage, as he does a certain strain of his fearless joie de vivre to his mother. The juxtaposition of the scenes between the preteen Oliver and his mother and the adult Oliver and his father reveal how much time Hal has lost — not just as an openly gay man, but also as a father — as well as how hard he’s trying to make up for those lost years. Despite his advanced age, Hal develops a relationship with Andy (Goran Visnjic), a decades-younger, greasy-haired ne’er-do-well who is almost comically defensive toward Oliver about his gayness. Hal and Oliver’s attempts to bridge over years of emotional distance and chasms of truth gain urgency once Hal is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.
My descriptions have probably made Beginners out to be much more of a downer than it actually is. The film is fundamentally about grieving, but it’s primarily concerned with the life-affirming events that grief can lead to — in Oliver’s case, a new romance, a new outlook, and a new art project (the whimsical and unexpectedly uproarious “History of Sadness”). Perhaps films about the death of parents can illustrate such contradictions in ways that films about the deaths of children cannot, or have a much harder time doing. In any case, Beginners is leavened by such sweetness and humor that it doesn’t feel like a film about grieving, even while reminding us that life is full of people and things worth grieving for once they’re gone.