Some movies are meant to make viewers feel as though they’re intruding on the lives of the characters, that it’s an invasion of privacy, and they shouldn’t be able to see what’s happening. In many aspects, this is true for Beginners—the new film from director Mike Mills based partially on his own life and relationship with his father.
Beginners follows a graphic artist named Oliver (played by Ewan McGregor, who drops his Scottish accent in favor of an American one for the role) as he deals with the two emotional blows his father Hal (Academy Award nominee Christopher Plummer) has dealt him after the passing of Oliver’s mother: that he’s gay and has been throughout the entirety of their marriage, and that he’s got terminal cancer.
Plummer, who received a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor nomination for the movie, is adorable as Hal, who almost immediately surrounds himself with new clothes, new friends, and a new young boyfriend named Andy. Oliver is unsettled by these sudden changes but makes the best of them; he can tell that his father is in love for the first time in his life when he’s with Andy. And after all, it’s hard to stay mad at an older man who wants to know what kind of music is played in dance clubs so that he can buy a record of it later. Hal carries a subtle optimism with him that shows itself in many forms, for example he takes the time to rewrite Jesus’ death one day because he thinks it’s too violent and depressing. One of my favorite lines in the movie comes from this optimism, when he and Oliver are discussing Hal’s disease. He is telling his friends that everything is going well, that there was nothing to worry about. When Oliver reminds him that he has stage four cancer and that there’s no stage five, Hal brushes it off, claiming that isn’t what it means. His son wants to know what it means then, and Hal answered, “It just means that it’s been through three other stages.”
With well-placed music that sounds like it should be included on a B-side of a Wes Anderson soundtrack, Beginners adds more intimacy with slow-moving camera pans and lots of close-ups of its actors. The movie is told in a series of flashbacks, jumping back and forth between the months following the death of Oliver’s mother and present day, with peaks at Oliver as a child as well.
The movie’s quiet vibe is enforced by the fact that when two of the main characters are first introduced to the audience, they don’t speak. The first character, a French actress named Anna (Mélanie Laurent), doesn’t stay quiet for long, but when Oliver first meets her at a costume party, she’s got laryngitis and can’t talk with him. She communicates with a pad of paper and a pen (like a female Dwayne from Little Miss Sunshine) until she regains her voice. When she and Oliver leave the party, he tells her to point and he’ll drive wherever she points. In a flashback to Oliver’s childhood, it’s revealed that Oliver’s mother originally offered the same point-and-drive option to him. As Anna and Oliver spend more time together, she reveals that she has her own need for help with her problems that concern her emotionally unstable father.
The second character is Arthur, Hal’s Jack Russell terrier. Arthur has come to live with Oliver and speaks to him in subtitles as Oliver muses about his life, the world, and how the dog is going to have to start talking to him, or else the two of them will end up very lonely. Arthur acts like Oliver’s therapist, he’s constantly available to talk to, and while he might not speak, he’s definitely listening, and having someone who will listen unconditionally is always nice.
Beginners possesses the feeling of a movie that should have viewers leaving the theaters depressed, and it definitely does in some ways, but Mills scatters little sparks of hope throughout the movie: from Hal and Oliver setting off fireworks together and dancing and kissing in the living room, to Anna and Oliver spray-painting grammatically correct graffiti (is there any other way to go?) on an empty billboard. The phrase that is spray-painted is “You make me laugh but it’s not funny”, and I think that describes Beginners pretty well. There are a few opportunities to laugh throughout the movie, but the characters have grown so relatable and close to viewers over the course of an hour and a half it makes you question whether or not it’s appropriate to laugh. It feels like you want to, to release stress or rid the air of an uncomfortable moment, but you still can’t figure out why it would be funny. Either way, if you ever feel like you made a mistake or a snap judgment, you always have the option to go back and start life over as a beginner.