Father, Son and Dog 

Thanks to great performances and compelling storytelling, 'Beginners' is a film that resonates

Richly detailed and obviously personal, Beginners is one of the year's more resonant films.

The "beginners" of the title are Oliver (Ewan McGregor), who in one timeline is coping with his father's death, his father's dog, and his trepidations about moving forward with his own life; and Oliver's father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), who in a parallel story decides to come out of the closet at the age of 75. Writer-director Mike Mills, who should not be confused with the R.E.M. bassist of the same name, taps into a remarkably similar set of circumstances from his own life, and is able to detail the journeys in refreshing and often heartbreaking ways.

Hal is dead when the movie opens, and Oliver is finishing the necessary cleaning while he gets to know Arthur, his father's Jack Russell terrier. The dog's thoughts—or at least what Oliver would like the dog's thoughts to be—are seen onscreen as subtitles. It's a clever little device that Mills revisits from time to time, giving a film not aiming for big laughs a simple and reliable release valve.

Oliver begins retracing his own life after the death of his father, and again, Mills has an interesting visual way to present the chronology. He establishes a date, and using relevant snapshots, compares one year with another. "This is 2003," Oliver says through voiceover. "This is what the sun looks like, and the stars. This is the president." And then, "This is what the sun looks like in 1955," and so on. The years have meaning; 2003 is when his father passed away, and 1955 is when his parents got married.

As a storytelling platform, it's a little inefficient, but as opposed to having either no setup or something more discreetly woven through the dialogue, Mills rightly believes that these slideshows serve as bookmarks for the chapters of his script.

Oliver explains that in 1955, his parents wed despite Hal being gay, and his mother, who passed away about five years before her husband, knew the whole time. But the '50s were a different, far-more-conservative time, and being different—being almost anything but a WASP—had its drawbacks. "She took off her Jewish badge, and I gave up my gay badge," Hal explained to Oliver, "and we got married."

Hal begins to explore life as a gay man all over again, and he is intoxicated by his newfound freedom. Then he gets sick, and cancer can be an unforgiving bitch, no matter how much you plead with her to stop. Through the illness, Hal and Oliver become closer than we suspect they have been in some time, maybe ever, if you believe that parents and children can only see eye to eye as adults.

Plummer, who did not just become a good actor recently, is doing some of his best work late in life. Beginning with his performance as Mike Wallace in The Insider, Plummer has strung together a series of memorable roles over the past decade or so. He recently received his first Oscar nomination for The Last Station, and this will likely be his second.

But Hal is only one of the beginners. His son appears to be piecing together more than a life without both of his parents. Oliver reveals that he's wrecked every relationship he's been in, and when he meets Anna (Mélanie Laurent from Inglourious Basterds), it's a whole new ballgame. She's a French actress, traveling in and out of Los Angeles, and when she stays in town, it's always at movie-star hotels. It's odd that she would be magnetized by a man who shows up at a costume party as Sigmund Freud, terrier in tow, but from the beginning, there is something about each of them that the other can't put into words.

There is a storytelling device Mills uses here, too, like the dog subtitles and the chronological flash cards: Anna is suffering from laryngitis when she meets Oliver, and to get to know more about him, she must write down all of her questions. Things like this have been done countless times before in movies, but when it's done the right way, it gives the audience a chance to focus on the characters without modern intruders like quick editing and a continuous stream of background music.

Whether or not Mills was banking on it, our unfamiliarity with Laurent works in his film's favor. With a more-recognizable actress, her reactions to certain environments—love scenes, breakup scenes—could be a little more predictable. Most Americans have seen Laurent once, and it goes without saying that this is nothing like Inglourious Basterds. And so there is some newness in seeing how she lives in each moment, and how she will deal with the conflict of each scene.

After a more-daring era of his career, Ewan McGregor has quietly become a solid leading man for all occasions. Although he'll never be a Brad Pitt-size movie star, McGregor regularly brings a vulnerability and humanity to his performances that give his films a little more gravity, and this one is no exception.

Although some moviegoers may think Mills' methods—the talking dog and all the rest—are a bit pretentious when added together, they help the filmmaker tell his story (and it's really his story) in his way. But they are not the emotional center of Beginners—merely the language Mills uses to surround the center. And like the rest of the film, they pay off beautifully.

Rated R · 105 minutes · 2011
Official Site: focusfeatures.com/beginners
Director: Mike Mills
Producer: Leslie Urdang, Dean Vanech, Miranda de Pencier, Jay Van Hoy, Lars Knudsen and Joan Scheckel
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Mélanie Laurent, Goran Visnjic, Kai Lennox, Mary Page Keller and Keegan Boos


More by Colin Boyd


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Readers also liked…

  • Ghosts of Christmas

    Charles Dickens wrestles with the spirits of the season
    • Nov 30, 2017
  • Stop the Bourne-ness

    Jason Bourne is the latest in a franchise that needs to end immediately … please
    • Aug 4, 2016

What others are saying (9)

Style Weekly Getting to Know You Mike Mills' "Beginners" is too cute for its own good. by Wayne Melton 07/26/2011
Colorado Springs Independent Glitter and buried gold: Beginners Watching writer-director Mike Mills adorn his film is like watching a child go a little too crazy with the glitter on an art project. by Justin Strout 07/14/2011
Portland Mercury Romance for Beginners Romcom meets geriatric coming-out story in Beginners. by Alison Hallett 06/09/2011
6 more reviews...
The Coast Halifax Beginners universal and inclusive Melancholy "memoir" one of the year's best films by Carsten Knox 07/14/2011
Boise Weekly The Projector Fathers and sons, sisters and brothers (and the father they never knew), looking for love in all the right places and pretending in Paris. 07/01/2011
Charleston City Paper Mike Mills' Beginners looks at his relationship with his openly gay dad Despite the fact that they are so close to us, our parents can present the biggest mysteries in our lives. What do they really think? What were their lives like before we came along? What are their secret hopes and desires buried underneath all of that parental devotion? Which of their own interests are they tamping down for the sake of us, their progeny? by Felicia Feaster 07/06/2011
Memphis Flyer Humane Touch Beginners: a heartfelt but shoegazing romance. by Addison Engelking 07/07/2011
Colorado Springs Independent Opening this week Beginners, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 and other film events happening around town. 07/14/2011
Creative Loafing Tampa The Green Lantern arrives Plus: The Art of Getting By and more what's playing at a theater near you. by Joe Bardi 06/16/2011

The Range

The Weekly List: 23 Things To Do In Tucson This Week

Two Dozen Ways To Have Fun This Weekend!

The Weekly List: 25 Things To Do In Tucson This Week

More »

Latest in Cinema Feature

Most Commented On

  • Of Inhuman Bondage

    Our critic could use a safe word to get him out of having to review this hot mess
    • Feb 15, 2018
  • More »

Facebook Activity

© 2018 Tucson Weekly | 7225 Mona Lisa Rd. Ste. 125, Tucson AZ 85741 | (520) 797-4384 | Powered by Foundation