Kernel Rating (out of 5):
Length: 105 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Age Appropriate for: 17+; Beginners is a light R. There’s obligatory swearing, including the f-word. Both heterosexual and homosexual couples engage in tender, romantic kisses, and premarital sex is implied but never shown. The frankest acknowledgement of sex comes from brief sound bite of Alan Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” and a far off glimpse of an illustration in The Joy of Sex. Real-life nudity is brief and limited to some side-boob. The film’s narrative style is fun but a little confusing, and the pace sometimes drags; some teens may lose interest after a time.
In Mike Mills’ new film, a father sets the example for his son to jumpstart a new life.
by Jared Peterson
As Beginners begins, we find Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a graphic designer in his late thirties, saddened and adrift in work and life. It is 2003, and he is mourning the recent death of his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), from cancer. As Oliver narrates, the story drifts back and forth in time to take in moments that have amplified his anomie. Four years earlier, his mother also dies of cancer; shortly thereafter, his father reveals he is a homosexual. Oliver, who is straight, isn’t surprised—though he certainly doesn’t expect this, and seems never to have suspected or guessed his father’s orientation. The loss and the revelation force him to reexamine his own life, and to see the connections between what he had (and didn’t have) in the past and who he has become in the present.
As he looks back on his parents’ hollow, perfunctory relationship, snippets of his remembered childhood show his mother Georgia (Mary Page Keller) as a wry, free-spirited but unsatisfied woman. His father, on the other hand, was a diffuse and distant presence. In flashbacks he is always glimpsed walking away—the back of a coat shuffling off to work. By contrast, in these years after his father’s coming out, Oliver sees a different man emerge. Free from the closet, Hal embraces “the lifestyle” and finds an active place in gay community. He seems to blossom, becoming more gentle and more open. When he enters into a relationship with a younger man, Andy (Goran Visnjic), the son witnesses something he realizes he has never seen before—his father in love.
Oliver is amazed and inspired by the man his father has become so late in life. He is equally stunned by the ways his own life—especially his serial monogamy and habit of distancing himself in relationships—has been shaped by those childhood absences. He allows himself an attempt at a deeper connection with Anna (Mélanie Laurent, Inglorious Basterds), a French actress similarly plagued by losses and absences in her past. He works through the issues and the burgeoning relationship with his art, as well as with some not entirely one-sided exchanges with his father’s Jack Russell terrier Arthur (played by the surely-to-be-Oscar-nominated Cosmo). In one such “conversation”—Arthur is a good listener, and his astute reactions sometimes appear in subtitles on screen—Oliver muses on the fact that Jack Russells owe all of their skills and charms to careful breeding. Their traits have been crafted by someone else, and without their say. (Arthur, true to that breeding, is adorably unfazed.) The parallel is unmistakable: Oliver’s personality was shaped, if unintentionally, by his environment.
In keeping with the film’s drily humorous but essentially sober tone, both Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer strive to deliver subtle performances. McGregor’s is effective but quite dry indeed—a hazard, I’ve found, whenever he plays an American. Christopher Plummer, delicate and dignified as ever, brings such warmth and light to Hal’s better-late-than-never story, characterized as it is by both the wisdom of age and the giddiness of newfound freedom. As Anna, Mélanie Laurent is… well, I’m sure she’s a very nice person. Though her character has import on paper, Laurent’s presence feels merely atmospheric—Mills could have cast any of a dozen indie film actresses who would have, at the least, felt like they were there. (I guess Maggie Gyllenhaal is letting her phone go to voicemail these days.)
Beginners is neither an afterschool special nor a melodramatic “issue film”. Its central focus isn’t social tolerance or family deception, but rather love—specifically, whether living without love can be called living at all. The film has the elastic structure and associative quality of memory. Oliver narrates his story in words as well as images—the writer and director, Mike Mills (Thumbsucker) was once a graphic designer, and Oliver’s thoughts and struggles are often expressed through cartoons and scribblings and stock photographs of bygone eras. The pace, unfortunately, is at times molasses-slow—the film could have been 8 to 10 minutes shorter, for certain. Nonetheless, Beginners’ mutant storytelling structure and inward-tending action make it a satisfying midsummer break between blockbusters.