Review: Beginners

Beginners offers a greater insight into humanity than any film I’ve seen in 2011. This is not because it mirrors my life experience in the slightest, because it doesn’t. In point of fact, many of its thematic and stylistic eccentricities preclude it from that oft-mentioned film critic category of “realistic.” Realism is not the film’s stock-in-trade. But it masters authenticity for these unique characters, in this beautifully realized cinematic world.

Not many of us can specifically recall the moment when our father came out of the closet in his 70s, or when we embarked on a tentative relationship with a spirited but flaky French woman when we meet her at a costume party, or when our spunky pet dog spoke to us in subtitles. Yet, in a screenplay that draws these scenarios with such wit and depth, that understands each of its characters with such openness and warmth, we bypass the threat of arch pretense and reach a state of true empathy. We relate to these characters because they each live and feel with fumbling human frailty – with sadness, brief bursts of joy, and a sneaking vulnerability that unveils a capacity for love, for relief, for a reconciliation of the complicated lives they have lived. Beginners may not be realistic, but it is real.

Ewan McGregor is Oliver, who is sad. He is sad because his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer) has died – or is dying, depending on which timeline the film is on at the moment – of terminal cancer. But it’s more complicated than that; the cancer diagnosis came on the heels of another revelation – that Hal is gay, and has been closeted for all of Oliver’s life. Oliver is not sad that his father is gay – it simply adds one more revelatory layer to the sadness of his upbringing, in which Hal was mainly absent while Georgia (Mary Page Keller), Oliver’s mother, always seemed slightly removed from reality. Or, more to the point, she could no longer deny reality and allowed her cynicism to rule her every decision.

The screenplay unfolds on multiple timelines. The structure is tricky and the balance is delicate. We follow as Oliver tends to Hal throughout his disease, and as he learns more about his father’s past he simultaneously draws closer and further away from the man who has assumed such a mythic role in his life. We are also afforded occasional glimpses into Oliver’s childhood, when his father always seemed to be walking out the door while his mother raised him with equal parts loving care and harsh sadness. And there is also Oliver after his father’s death, who is in complete emotional stasis – he’s sad because of everything and nothing. It is an outsider who provides Oliver with the possibility of emotional catharsis, a fledgling French actress named Anna (Melanie Laurent, Inglourious Basterds) whose lifestyle of jetting from one audition to another underscores the ebbs and flows of her emotional availability.

These timelines are all obviously related to the experience of our central protagonist, yet the past doesn’t feel so far away and the present doesn’t always seem immediate – in fact, the “present day” storyline specifically takes place in 2003. Similarly, the story never feels purposely jumbled like a Guillermo Arriaga script, or as if flashbacks are specifically intended to recall events specific to a single emotion. Writer-director Mike Mills layers every scene purposely but effortlessly, so that it feels as if three time periods exist together one psychic timeline, in a sequence that feels innate and unaffected. It is truly masterful screenwriting – the best of the year thus far. Mills’ first feature was the 2005 emo-indie adaptation of Walter Kirn’s novel, Thumbsucker. That film was weighed down in precious pretense, but Beginners synthesizes pain, joy, and love within a cinematic construct that sublimely captures Mills’ quirks without feeling false or condescending. The freshman film now seems like a testing ground for this infinitely more mature sophomore effort.

Oliver clings to surface memories of each significant portion of his life, memories he conveys in brief digressions of stream-of-consciousness narration – “This is the year…This is who the president was… This is what the sky looked like…” He clings to these signposts as enduring fragments of certainty, the defining, unquestionable moments of clarity in a life filled with such a perplexing lack of emotional definition. The sequence of events presented to us in Beginners allows us to reach an understanding of Oliver that he himself cannot attain, except through the long process of experiencing his life moment-by-moment. We get the exploded view, and in this seamless weaving of a life’s defining moments, we think about what our lives might look like if granted a similar treatment. As we think of those moments, we smile, we think, and we are either thankful to have found our home, or hope that we are able to find it someday.

93/100 - Beginners is a sublime pastiche of one life’s defining moments through which we can reflect on the people and the experiences that make us who we are.

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Jason McKiernan

Sr. Staff Film Critic & Awards Pundit
I married into the cult of cinema at a very young age - I wasn't of legal marriage age, but I didn't care. It has taken advantage of me and abused me many times. Yet I stay in this marriage because I'm obsessed and consumed. Don't try to save me -- I'm too far gone.

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