Review: Beginners (2011)

Director: Mike Mills

****

Many times in life, we are forced to compromise our happiness. Then, we are freed from societal pressures and can once again search for whatever may complete us. In Beginners, Hal (Christopher Plummer) and his son Oliver (Ewan McGregor) are beginning the search for that completeness. Oliver is embarking on a relationship with Anna (Mélanie Laurent), whilst Hal readjusts to life after the passing of his wife. How? By coming out as a gay man at the age of 75. Clearly, happiness is a concept that differs from person to person.

Writer/director Mike Mills (who also directed the underrated Thumbsucker) takes inspiration from his own father, who also came out after a lengthy marriage. Beginners jumps back and forth through time, from Oliver and Anna’s relationship in 2003 back to a few years before, to Oliver’s time with his father from his coming out to his death from cancer (we learn this happens in the film’s opening. No spoilers here!). It’s the bedrock of many an indie movie: characters coping with the most unusual of circumstances. Where Beginners differs is in its refusal to get too maudlin, even when the big ‘C’ lurks in the corner. Like the character of Hal, Beginners takes events as they come with a big smile on its face. Oliver meets Anna shortly after Hal passes, and seeing this depressive guy and this feisty girl hook up is all kinds of wonderful. McGregor gives one of his warmest performances here, whilst Laurent is a delight, filled with sensual charm. Best of all is Plummer, as he embraces life and loves with a wry smile and a distinct sense of mischief. With renewed vigour, his lover Andy (Goran Visnjic) and his dog Arthur (a frequent scene-stealer), Hal fills his days with writing, shopping and laughter. The erstwhile Captain Von Trapp may need to have speeches ready come awards season.

Mills’ script is full of identifiable warmth; for such a happily energetic film, Beginners feels remarkably intimate. As Hal’s condition worsens and Oliver and Anna’s relationship gets rocky, the pace becomes more subdued, but the reaper’s gotta be paid sometime. Mills deftly handles the jumps in chronology, but his direction veers towards brash on occasion. Mopey voiceovers and montages scream indie cliché, but there’s simply too much joy and warmth in Beginners for it to be anything less than beguiling.

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