Any relationship is a balance of give and take, at its most base in the form of objects but more importantly, and personally, in the form of shared thoughts and experiences. In particular, it's the things that have hurt us that are often the hardest to impart, usually seeming so singular and specific that it's impossible to think of how another person would understand our pain, let alone want to share in it. Beginners, a new film from Mike Mills, explores what happens when a relationship is founded on two people sharing their pain, in this case, the pain caused by the people who try to harm us the least, parents. It’s 2003 and Oliver Fields (McGregor) has just lost his father to cancer. In the few years between his wife’s death and his own, Hal has come out as an openly gay man, a surprising revelation for Oliver but one which is well founded. As the film jumps between time periods, we see a young Oliver growing up in a house where romance was a peck on the cheek and his mother’s thinly veiled frustration develops into a playful yet unconventional parentage with her son. She’s making the best of a bad situation to be sure, but it still leaves him without guidance as to how a relationship of more than platonic love can work. “I don’t want to be like you and mom,” he tells his father Hal (Plummer), whose new lifestyle Oliver fully supports but can’t help partly resenting; what kind of a blueprint for married life does he have when the one his parents showed him was a complete lie?
The thought that our parents are so stoically in control that we don’t need to worry about their problems is a comforting one, so when Hal faces the difficulty of starting over again in his autumn years, it’s understandable that Oliver is at a complete loss when trying to help him. Past loves for the thirty-something graphic designer are summed up in a flip-book of ex-girlfriends, each dated no more than a couple years, sometimes many years apart, each fallen in love with despite the certainty that things wouldn’t work out. While he remains a big presence in his father’s new life, Oliver is ill-equipped when it comes to giving Hal lessons on love when he never received them from his father in the first place, like a patient asked to analyze his shrink. Which is exactly how Oliver meets Anna (Laurent) at a costume party, he dressed as Freud, initially warming her up with in-character questions about her parents before having the conversation turned on him when they go back to her plush hotel room the same evening, two months after Hal’s death. She’s an actress, constantly travelling but unable to confront relentless phone calls from her disturbed father. It’s a situation Oliver can sympathize with and the two begin a romance borne out of the unsexiest of topics, father issues.
Based in part on writer-director Mills’ own experiences, Beginners is nothing if not heartfelt and for a film advertised as a dramedy, it skews far more towards the prefix than the suffix, which would have made for a maudlin affair if it weren't so earnest and sadly funny. Used as Mills' surrogate rather than a soapbox, Oliver bares a believable despondence, his detachment no more evident than when he lists off the steps that take place between a person passing and their material exorcism from your life, a devastatingly frank showcase of where he is, stuck with a loss that’s past mourning but a very long ways away from acceptance. Oliver’s pessimism threatens to overwhelm the visible happiness he had with his father and the future he could have with kindred spirit Anna, and the relationships are wonderfully realized by the three talented lead performers, especially McGregor, who exudes an at times powerful melancholy . Venerated actor Christopher Plummer brings the perfect mix of motives to Oliver’s memory of Hal, portraying him as a father who affably wants to stay close to his son while transitioning into a new identity, but also as a man who naively ignores the collateral damage caused by his thirty-year sham of a marriage.
Mélanie Laurent as Anna shines equally, finding a depth and honesty that justify how a person so radiant could divorce themselves entirely from the notion of a relationship ever working out, making a life of hotel rooms and travel sound reasonable when all you want to do is avoid the repercussions of coming to know someone. She’s not so much a manic pixie dream girl as she is a manic-depressive dream girl, making her attraction to Oliver wholly more believable and satisfying. And despite the sizeable star power, the film has an indie spirit, featuring most of the perks and warts that come with the pedigree. Mills’ makes effective use of slideshow photos showing how relationships both hetero and homosexual have changed between two generations and the clever use of multiple time periods make for some of the film’s most touching little moments. Common caveats of this sort of picture surface though, such as how Oliver and Anna meet in a textbook example of the infamous meet-cute and a great deal of the film’s levity is the result of Oliver’s adorable Jack Russell terrier Arthur, who occasionally quips in with subtitled commentary. Cliché is perhaps overly present and Mills’ elegizing creates bits of dialogue that land with a thud but these conventions and flaws stand out mostly because the whole of the picture is so personal and sincere, maintaining an endearing quirkiness that rarely comes off as cloying.
In the way that only small films can, Beginners works as a kind of highly polished home movie featuring unaware subjects, one that focuses on a microcosm of characters experiencing situations instead of reacting to them. The story moves and the people change, some more than others, but never in a way that feels contrived and the film manages to be moody without ever resorting to dramatics. Even without intruding outside forces, it can take more than two people simply wanting to be together to make things work. Beginners doesn’t offer much in the way of solutions, which is more fitting than frustrating; relationships, whether with family or strangers, wouldn’t mean much if we’d perfected them already. Being with other people is equal parts discovering who they are and finding out how you can possibly live with them.
Directed by Mike Mills