Review: Beginners

by Ty Landis

Beginners represents pure escapism for audiences that are tired of the usual booms and bangs that seem to shroud film-goers during the summer film season. It’s a small little film, autobiographical to an extent; director Mike Mills learned of his own father’s homosexuality when he came out of the closet after his wife’s death. Mills has framed his own experiences into a film that he’s also written himself. It’s a textured and endlessly appealing work that may or may not be remembered by many at the end of the year, but for the most part, Beginners is something that many can identify with, and it’s worth noting that these type of films are harder and harder to come by.

Ewan McGreogor is standing in for Mills as Oliver, a lonely man whose recently been rocked by the news that his father Hal, played by Christopher Plummer, is not only gay, but has terminal cancer. The film jumps between past and present, more or less charting Oliver’s consciousness and attitude toward the situation. Oliver is no picnic himself, as we come to learn that he’s never been able to hold a stable relationship with a female. Oliver ends up developing a relationship with an actress named Anna, played by the stunning Melanie Laurent. They’re essentially a perfect fit, and it’s tremendously charming watching their romance gradually blossom throughout the film. Laurent, who burst onto the scene in 2008′s Inglorious Basterds, is an actress who can do so much with her eyes and her killer smile. She’s one cog in the trio of actors that make this film highly insightful and enjoyable.

Mills gives the film its own little unique spin that separates itself from other so-called dramas of this sort. Since Oliver is the catalyst for the audience, we’re presented with a point of reference through Oliver’s subjective experiences. Not much happens in the film, but Mills’ allows us to get to know these characters and their flaws. Ultimately, Beginners strives to show us the imperfections of life, and the tireless ebb and flow of our journey, warts and all. It’s also very revealing in how it exposes the fragility of our existence. One can tell that Mills is holding nothing back from his own experiences. The film is told through portraits, as it effortlessly weaves a handful of characters and their arcs together gracefully.

If anything, the film is too calculated, and while I rather enjoyed the pacing, the third act, particularly the last 20-25 minutes are way too scattered. I sat there thinking it could’ve wrapped up at multiple spots, but the film continued on. Plummer is his reliable self here, turning in a nuanced, yet un-showy performance. Mills easily could’ve written Hal differently, perhaps forcing Plummer’s performance down Oscar voters throats, but the script and Plummer thankfully go a different route. This is perhaps the truest performance that McGregor has ever given, hardly brilliant, but tuned into the type of aimlessness and numbness that Mills might’ve felt.

Beginners has a melancholic tone throughout, but in no way is it a film void of hope. The two central relationships are what work the best. Just as Hal is liberated and able to explore his desired sexuality, Oliver’s almost muted existence has taken a hold of him. It’s not so much a film about Oliver learning to live his life in the way Hal has come to with his boyfriend Andy (Visnjic), but a “live in the moment” commentary on how life isn’t always waiting on us. Beginners has a big heart, and at times gives off a tingly feeling of how life can surprise us if we take advantage of it.

75/100 - Beginners has a big heart, and at times gives off a tingly feeling of how life can surprise us if we take advantage of it.

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