February 11, 2011 / Mediation, Uncategorized
In 1991, the Academy Award for Best Picture went to the disturbing psycho thriller, The …
July 18, 2011
This review is the second from Filmwell’s guest contributor Lauren Wilford.
“You don’t know me. I like that.” So says the She of Beginners to the He, on one of those floating walks that fill up the start of a relationship. She’s teasing him, but we know it’s more than a bit of banter– it’s an attitude that can easily turn into a way of life. Beginners is at once an ode to this sentiment and a critique of it, equally at home in the giggles and piggyback rides of early love and in the unbearable looks at a person you know you are supposed to understand but do not. The film takes us inside that curious rush of hope and mystery that comes with a beginning, but it follows those firsts shoots further into maturity than most romances would dare.
The title of this film makes it easy to pre-judge it: oh, look, another cute indie drama where people fumble into relationships and find out life is sad and beautiful and complicated, because, you know, we are all beginners, etc., etc. And that assessment isn’t entirely off– Beginners is indeed a stylized relationship drama that adheres to the 21st century aesthetic of quirk. But writer/director Mike Mills’ strength is in his sense of arrangement, of context. He elevates what could be trite hipster sentimentality into a fully-realized human portrait by giving us a life in patchwork, sewing together sharp little bits of past and present. This is not a film about beginners as people who are “just waking up,” people whose lives prior to the film’s plot must have been an unimaginably dull morass (Garden State, anyone?). The beginners of Mill’s film have been at the business of life for a while. The circumstances that befall them in Beginners are not earth-shattering. They simply push the characters to look at themselves and this moment within the narrative of their lives, and to say, yes, this is important, and yes, I’m going to start something.
Near the beginning, Ewan McGregor’s Oliver narrates a series of quick cuts that establish the situation. Oliver’s mother has passed away, and soon after, his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), reveals that he has been gay for his entire marriage. “And I don’t want to be gay in a theoretical way,” he poses, calm and pleasant. “I want to do something about it.” So he does, surrounding himself with an entirely new community and sense of purpose, leaving Oliver dumbfounded. To complicate matters, Hal has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. As the two share a home, Oliver must watch a man who formed an essential part of his identity become something he never would have expected, leaving him to reexamine the story he has always told himself about his life.
Weaving in and out of the father-son story is the boy-girl story, which materializes in a typical (though well-drawn) meet cute. The camera seems to be trained on Oliver’s heart itself as we watch it swell, with trepidation, under the influence of broken-flower Anna (French actress Mélanie Laurent). The two of them rollerskate and graffiti their way through the beginnings of charming indie love, and it looks for all the world as if she’s going to become his manic pixie dream girl, the vivacious creature who will teach him to suck the marrow out of life. But look a little closer, and Anna is less than a sprite. She may be young and pretty, but watch how her unwashed, bottle-blonde hair hangs around a face with jutting cheekbones and overcast eyes, like a worn, fragile Audrey Tautou. It soon becomes clear that this French artiste isn’t in the business of saving anyone, despite how desperately our hero may need saving. Ewan McGregor’s portrayal of Oliver, as a thinking man fraying at the edges, is modest and heartbreaking, enough to make us hope against hope that the ripples of happiness Anna gives him will smooth over all the raw places in his soul.
It may seem that there are two stories here, but really there is one– it’s very clear who our protagonist is, and the film’s centered story arc is the best thing to recommend it. While Hal’s burgeoning romance with a younger man in the face of his waning health is a captivating story on its own, we see it through Oliver’s eyes. For Oliver, watching his father break out into dance with his boyfriend is both unsettling and inspiring, an apparent denial of the marriage that created him but marked by a strange joy he can’t help but understand. Beginners is the story of a man stacking up his love and his sadness against the other great love and sadness he has witnessed– that of his parents.
Beginners realizes that a love story is really a person story, and that in life, beginnings are marked by their relationship to what came before. And so for every bit of himself that Oliver reveals to Anna, we get a snapshot of nine year old Oliver in a rare moment of play with his mother (Mary Page Keller, weary and sharp). When Oliver’s relational anxiety creeps in, we get flickers of his parents’ stale kisses goodnight in the sixties. Mills is equally fond of these small, ephemeral touches as he is of more mannered choices, like metacognitive voiceover and a dog that speaks in subtitles. But for the most part, he blends both styles to create scenes that are as honest as they are clever. Take, for example, the costume party sequence near the start of the film. While it may seem self-conscious that Oliver goes dressed as Sigmund Freud, armed with in-character quips, watch for the way his friends tease him when he picks up drinks: an entire relationship is captured in a single interaction. If you find it too precious that Anna, mute with laryngitis, sits down with Oliver for a psychoanalysis, then wait until the two get up and dance. Rarely on film do you see the kind of dancing that actually happens at these parties, breathless and funny and weird. Oliver’s relationship with his father is also laden with these gems, which allows Plummer to give a luminous performance, full of emotional catches.
In the end, when Oliver stacks up his relationships with the previous generation’s, he observes this: “We are allowed to feel sadness our parents didn’t have time for.” The central love story of Beginners follows a particularly postmodern chronology. Step one: recognize that you are both sad souls. Step two: have sex. Step three: ask the big questions and pour out your heart. Nine-year-old Oliver learns from his mother that stasis comes from screaming into a pillow, but thirty-eight-year-old Oliver hasn’t retained this. He wants to feel the way he’s supposed to feel, to understand the shape of his life, to blow the embers of happiness that fall around him into fires of durable joy. Beginners shows us the way that people are often at their most giving, their most naked and profound, when they feel they are embarking on something. Our beginnings show us for all we hope to be (and that’s where most film romances leave us). But Beginners hints that the acts of grace it takes to sustain something into a middle and an end are where we truly prove our humanity– though where we find that grace, God only knows.
Jeffrey Overstreet watches far too many movies, writes film reviews and two weekly columns for ChristianityTodayMovies.com, maintains the Web site LookingCloser.org, contributes to Paste Magazine, and is at work on a series of novels. He works at Seattle Pacific University.