directed by Mike Mills
(Focus, 2011)

This new film by indie-acclaimed director and writer Mike Mills has shock value, yet at times it's boring. The concept (loosely based on Mill's own life) is fascinating but it's also as depressing as a picture of Eeyore dead under his rain cloud.

Beginners will capture you with its tale of artist Oliver Fields (Ewan McGregor) and his elderly father Hal Fields (Christopher Plummer) who find themselves on an exceptionally strange journey of self-discovery. Oliver is faced with a unique challenge as a son when Hal, six months after his wife's death, announces to Oliver that he is gay and then is diagnosed with terminal cancer. For the rest of the film Oliver must find a way to care for, accept and re-connect with his newly-out father who is determined to actively live -- "I don't just want to be theoretically gay. I want to do something about it!" -- while dying.

Mills' film attempts to make sadness a quirky and lovable quality. After Hal's death Oliver takes in his orphaned dog Arthur, and the two mourners fall for a big-eyed, whimsical French actress named Anna (Melanie Laurent) at a costume party. The trio create a melancholy family portrait, and their only connection seems to be their lack of connection to the world, their intentional self-denial of joy in life. We see it in the way that Oliver lives in a place filled with his father's possessions instead of his own, and Anna lives her life from hotel to hotel while she dodges phone calls from her emotionally disturbed father.

Arthur -- yes, the dog -- silently speaks what no one is willing to say out loud. "Tell her the darkness is about to drown us unless something drastic happens right now," he advises Oliver. But while flashbacks of Oliver's time with Hal "living" life are meant to be an example showing him how to embrace Anna's love and the simple wonder of breathing every day, the film fails (or rather Oliver fails) to recognize a vital point -- Anna is not a lifeboat. Laurent plays Anna with subtlety to the point that we really have no idea what she's capable of or who she is other than that she's sad and empty like Oliver; yet she is supposed to be the "drastic" happening to turn his life around.

It's as if Plummer's bursting and chaotic performance, which is meant to be a cautionary tale of how easily one can lose their chances at having a fulfilled life, is wasted on those that live on after him. However, watching Plummer play Oliver during the few fleeting years he spends true to himself is insightful and something no one should miss. He embraces the role as if he too has been waiting to come out for the past 75 years. He kisses actor Goran Visnjic (playing Andy, Hal's partner) without inhibition; it's impossible to feel anything but happiness when watching his face light up at the sight of his new lover. After all, he has waited decades to love him and to be loved by him.

Mill's may have created a selfish and self-pitying story for Oliver, Anna and even Arthur, but thankfully it is put into harsh yet engrossing perspective for us through Hal's struggle. He is an elderly gay man learning what it means to be uninhibitedly, courageously, openly gay in the early 2000s when only 50-some years before Allen Ginsberg's Howl was considered scandalous and 30-some years before Harvey Milk was a political sensation. Plummer's performance and Hal's story make Beginners a film worth seeking out.

review by
Molly Ebert

31 March 2012

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