Maturity begins at death
In Beginners, Oliver tracks back to the time when his father, Hal made one important announcement. At 75, Hal announces that he’s (a) dying of cancer (b) gay. There’s that glow in Christopher Plummer’s face that I last saw in The Insider and in the more recent The Last Station, where he played Leo Tolstoy. Is Hal the best Plummer could ever do? The man is 82 years old and still whips up a defying performance. Despite his fateful future, he fills the screen with joy. As he explores today’s world, he sees a range of new things that earn his interest. These include late night parties and house music.
There is also that disappointment he faces when he admits after an unsuccessful trip to a gay bar “younger gay men don’t go for older gay men.” The film moves into two levels of flashbacks. One concerns a mid-thirties Oliver and his dying father, while the other revolves around a nine-year old Oliver and his mother, who according to him, lived life to the fullest.
Upon meeting a young French actress, Anna, his life begins to unfold as he realizes his unresolved emotions around his father’s death and his parents’ life together. Anna, played by Melanie Laurent, who was last seen in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is a composite character in Oliver’s life. The way Laurent appears onscreen may seem naïve to filmgoers who are used to watching heroines flash around in designer wear. Anna has paternal woes of her own and when they intertwine with Oliver’s, problems erupt.
And then there’s Arthur, Hal’s beloved Jack Russell Terrier who talks through subtitles. Arthur is introduced as the best friend to both Hal and Oliver. He states “I can understand 150 words from the human vocabulary.” When told that he cannot go to a party he isn’t invited to, Arthur whines in the lonely house prompting Oliver to take him everywhere he went.
Played by Ewan McGregor, is Oliver the dullest protagonist I’ve ever seen?
This film is based on the true story of filmmaker Mike Mills and his father. There’s that touch of familiarity that glues you to the screen even though the film moves at snail pace. The film prepares you with fabled optimism that you wish Anna and Oliver never broke up. The life we discover in Beginners is lonely and grey. Mills makes it clear that it is the people who make things happen, it is people who make life merry.
Here is a film that cannot be loved or understood in a single viewing. It took me three viewings to experience the life this film offers. Such a quality is a rarity in Hollywood these days.