Beginners – A Pretty Good Place to Start: a Recommendation from Steve

My personality was created by someone else and all I got was this stupid t-shirt. Early on in Beginners, Oliver (Ewan McGregor), who is a graphic artist, draws a t-shirt with that saying on it. That saying points to one of the many deep, personal and spiritual questions that this movie leads the viewer to ponder. Why am I the person that I am? What role did my parents play in determining my personality? What is my responsibility in choosing how to live my life? Is it possible to change, to get a fresh start? Is happiness in a healthy relationship even possible given all the baggage that we’re carrying with us? This is a movie that asks lots of big questions, but mostly in small, subtle ways. It is a movie filled with deep, often painful emotion. It doesn’t try to give many, if any, answers. Thankfully, it doesn’t have a neat and tidy Hollywood ending. Actually, I thought the ending was somewhat abrupt. Many movies over stay their welcome, but this is one that could have gone longer. I wanted to know, or at least to experience, a bit more, especially about Anna (Melanie Laurent). I wanted a stronger sense of hope. Let’s face it, I desired and was expecting a grace moment towards the end that would bring forth tears of joy. It didn’t happen for me, although it may for others. Again, it is a good thing, appropriate to the movie’s emotional honesty, that Mike Mills, the writer/director, didn’t succumb to the temptation of a schmaltzy conclusion.  Oliver and Anna each had lots of issues to deal with, so their relationship was not going to be easy. The movie offers the possibility of hope and maybe that is enough. Maybe, indeed, that’s all any of us can ask for in a movie and in life.

Be forewarned: if you like your movies to have a straightforward narrative approach, this one may not be for you. Although not as artsy as Tree of Life, Beginners is definitely quirky, using a voice-over narration by Oliver, photo montages, drawings, and even a dog that communicates through subtitles. The movie jumps back and forth between three time periods. Part of the film is set in 2003, at which time Oliver faces the recent death of his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) and falls in love with Anna. Part of the film covers the period from 1999 to 2003, during which time Hal announces to Oliver, shortly after Oliver’s mother’s death, that he is gay. He says that he doesn’t want to just be theoretically gay, but that he wants to do something about it and that he does, joining the gay community and developing a relationship with Andy, a much younger gay man. As Oliver seeks to understand his father in a new way, he reflects back on his childhood. These childhood scenes are mostly with his mother, who is clearly unhappy with her life, even though she chose to marry Hal knowing that he was gay. Oliver, of course, didn’t know that when he was growing up. All he knew was that his parents were not happy and that played a role in his inability to make a true commitment in a relationship. But now he’s seen his father find love in an unexpected way and then Anna enters his life. They meet in a delightful way unlike anything you seen before. Their relationship follows the boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-reunites-with-girl formula, but, from that unusual meeting onward, it is anything but ordinary. When they first meet, Anna doesn’t say a word to Oliver, instead writing responses on paper while claiming to have laryngitis. That claim may or  may not be true. That kind of mystery surrounds her character. When she does finally speak, she says, “My name is Anna. You’re worried you can’t trust me because you don’t know who I am. I get it; that makes sense to me.” By the end of the movie I felt that I still didn’t know who she was, so I was still worried that Oliver shouldn’t trust her, but as I’ve said I think that open ending actually fits the movie well.

Beginners is beautifully crafted by Mills and the performances by the three leads are marvelous. McGregor captures Oliver’s serious approach to life and his yearning for something more. Laurent, who was fabulous as Shosanna in Inglourious Basterds, is equally good here, presenting Anna’s playful exterior that barely conceals the pain she keeps inside. Strangely, her French accent seems stronger here than in Basterds, to the point of making her hard to understand at times. Plummer is likely to be nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar for his performance as the 75 year old Hal who finally comes out of the closet and revels in the freedom that brings. Bottom line: see this atypical romantic comedy, but know that it does not shy away from the struggles of life. If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself contemplating its themes long after it is over.

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