Many forms of love weave in and out of writer/director Mike Mills’ Beginners, none of which feel particularly fulfilling or all together happy. However, there is a great profoundness in the dual nature of these affections and how we ache for each sentiment, longing look, and reluctant embrace to swell into a sort of contentedness, one that is never fully realized within this film. This is the frustration and the joyous appeal of Beginners.
Written and directed by Mike Mills, whose intriguingly odd debut film was Thumbsucker, Beginners is to all intents and purposes a memory piece. These memories belong to Oliver Fields (Ewan McGregor), a 39-year-old graphic designer dealing with the death of his father, Hal Fields (the still ever so sexy Christopher Plummer). Oliver has inherited his father’s clingy Jack Russell terrier Arthur and the torments of an unfulfilled heart. In the hopes of accepting his father’s death, Oliver spends much of the film looking back at his parents’ marriage and at his father’s last, confusing months; Hal, who was happily married for over 40 years, comes out of the closet only months prior to his death. Oliver must hold on for dear life as Hal embraces his new gay identity by visiting gay night clubs, publishing personal ads, organizing gay book club, and entering into a relationship with a younger man, Andy (Goran Visnjic).
In the wake of Hal’s passing, Oliver meets Anna (Mélanie Laurent), a French actress who, with her half-life in a hotel and her broken, charming English, comes with a sort of sadness of her own. Their hazy, kind, and half-realized relationship seems happy, loving, and yet prematurely knowing of the grief that awaits them. Oliver must negotiate their waiting relationship as snapshots of his father’s hopeful ascots, his mother’s sexual frustrations, and the wine of a neglected dog flash through his mind.
So much of what Mills accomplishes with Beginners stems from the authentic, half-full reproachfulness of its romantic relationships. Unsettling as it is, the shadows of ill-formed and unprocessed memory haunt each intimacy and touch. We feel a sense of sadness, yet a sense of camaraderie with the authenticity of each unglossed pairing. The suffering of each character is oddly contextualized by constant references to the Holocaust and gay civil rights. If any comfort can be taken here, it’s that in Mills’ 21st century, love’s tough no matter which team you’re batting for.
Still, this film is not all doom and gloom. Although McGregor’s Oliver lacks a certain likeable sheen of optimism, Plummer’s Hal, a character who has faced oppression and self-hatred all his life, brings such a sense of new joy and zest for life that feels somewhat contagious. Likewise, Arthur (Cosmo, the Jack Russell terrier), is charming and totally lovable in his co-dependency. In this tale, Arthur and Hal’s love story is the one to beat.
As far as its Oscar future goes, it’s certainly garnering enough buzz to land itself a couple nominations. With big wins at The Gotham Independent Spirit Awards, and nominations at The Screen Actors Guild Awards and The Critics Choice Movie Awards, this film is definitely doing the leg work to keep itself well positioned to gain a Golden Globe nomination tomorrow and an Oscar nomination in February. I don’t foresee it pulling down any wins, but I do see a slew of nominations for Best Director (Mike Mills), Best Supporting Actor (Christopher Plummer), and Best Jack Russell Terrier (Cosmo).
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