Beginners – Directed by: Mike Mills
Review By: Gordon K. Smith
Judging from the ads and posters, you’d naturally expect Mike Mills’ new indie comedy Beginners to be a laff-out-loud raunchy comedy in which the hero’s dad comes out as gay at age 75 and consults his straight single son for dating advice. Surely comedy hi-jinks ensue. Sounds like a riot.
The film, however, is a more low-key, nonlinear personal vision piece that moves around in time, never goes for a cheap laugh and focuses more on insight than raunch (which is, in fact, scarce; the film barely earns its “R” rating). The laughs are there, but they’re matched by the somber moments in a film that is never quite what you think it will be.
The director’s counterpart in the film is Oliver, a graphic designer (exactly what he designs and how he gets paid for it is not quite clear), played by Ewan McGregor; Christopher Plummer is Hal, the dad, and both give beautifully restrained, measured performances. Melanie Laurent is the French actress with father issues of her own that Oliver psychoanalyzes on their first meeting (he’s doing Freud at a costume party) and Goran Visnjic is Dad’s uptight boyfriend who doesn’t necessarily believe in monogamy.
There’s a Jack Russell Terrier who talks in subtitles, and even that works better than you’d think possible.
Mills, himself a graphic artist and music video director with one previous feature (2005’s Thumbsucker), based his original screenplay closely on his own experience: six months after his mother’s death, his 75 year old father, an erudite museum director, announced he was gay, and not just “theoretically gay” but ready for gay sexual activity; he entered the local gay circles, acquired a younger boyfriend and died of cancer four years later at the height of his rejuvenation. That’s not a spoiler; you get all of this in the film’s first few minutes. The rest of the film is Oliver’s life after his father’s passing, when he realizes how his parents’ genteel dysfunction — a loving yet distant marriage — has affected his own attempts at relationships. It’s also his life before, and during. We see him as a child, who was often more of a companion to a strong willed but lonely mother (Mary Page Keller) than the husband she thought she could “fix”, and how, as his dad’s caregiver in more ways than one, the two men bonded as they never had. Oliver and Hal are both beginners, each trying to start the love affair that will finally grant them happiness.
Mills brings the unique sensibilities of a graphic artist to his storytelling. Several times he punctuates whatever period he’s referencing with a “memory slideshow” of images from that era, a wonderful shorthand delivery of backstory. When Oliver hears his dad’s grim prognosis, we see images of coins. Is it just a generic image Oliver fixates upon to block out the bad news, or is he thinking of the money side of the situation? We don’t know, but it’s startling.
If Beginners has a major flaw, it’s that maybe it’s too cinematically attention deficit, by design. No one scene gets to play out for very long, which results in a deliberately fragmented structure that doesn’t build to a sustained climax as such. Perhaps it robs Plummer a bit of the kind of dramatic arc that would guarantee him an Oscar nomination next spring (I hope not). The print, or digital projection, at the screening I attended was low-key visually as well to a fault, with almost no brightly lit scenes. Yet Mills is to be commended. He could have easily made that other movie from this story – a Hangover/Bridesmaids-style yuckfest, and it might have been okay on that level. Instead, he made something that will resonate with every viewer, and stay on the mind long afterwards.