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Beginners (Review)

Beginners (Review)

More heart than quirk
Aug 25, 2011
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Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance Release Date: 25/08/2011 Runtime: 105 minutes Country: USA


Director:  Mike Mills Writer(s): 
Mike Mills

Cast: Christopher Plummer, Ewan McGregor, Goran Visnjic, Kai Lennox, Mélanie Laurent, Mary Page Keller
Beginners (Review), reviewed by Tom Clift on 2011-08-25T23:14:18+00:00 rating 3.5 out of5

The sophomore film from Thumbsucker director Mike Mills’, Beginners succeeds, in spite of some occasional moments of self-conscious quirk and indie affectation, thanks mostly to it’s phenomenal cast as well as its genuine and clearly very personal approach to the difficult subjects of love and grief. Written by Mills and based in part on his relationship with his father, the film uncovers a place for itself as a moving, melancholy but ultimately optimistic dramedy, one that tells its story with just the right amount of heart, hope, intellect and bittersweet regret.

Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is a graphic designer in his late thirties who, at the outset of the film, is dealing with the extremely recent passing of his father Hal (Christopher Plummer). A closeted gay man for most of his life, Hal came out to Oliver shortly after his seventy-fifth birthday, only to be struck down by cancer just a few short years later. While still in mourning for his father, Oliver finds himself embarking on a love affair with Anna (Melanie Laurent), a beautiful but emotionally-baggaged French woman with father issues of her own. Shifting in and out of flashbacks, we witness how Oliver’s past – both his childhood upbringing at the hands of his inexpressive mother, as well as his recent adult relationship with his spiritually invigorated but physically ailing father – continues to affect his relationships in the present.

The emotional heart of Beginners lies undoubtedly in the relationship between Oliver and Hal. McGregor and Plummer offer up two perfectly weighted, occasionally humorous and often heartbreaking performances, capturing all the realistic dynamics – the love, the frustration and the sadness – that exist between every real life father and son.

beginnersplummer Beginners (Review)

By comparison, the relationship between Oliver and Anna finds its root in fiction, and is a little less convincing as a result. Anna never feels so much like a real character as she does like an object towards which Oliver can direct his idealised affections. Thanks to the excellent performances from both McGregor and Laurent, one never doubts the sincerity of the emotions between them, but too often, Anna’s behaviours and idiosyncrasies ring just a little false, while many of the circumstances of their encounters – rollerblading through a hotel lobby; a midnight date to write ironic graffiti on a billboard – drift dangerously into the territory of independent cinema cliché.

The same could be said of Mills’ directorial flourishes, although in my opinion it works just as often as it fails. The use of the still images and voiceover is particularly inspired — Mills’ uses the technique to comment on the relationship between the past and the present; how some things change, while others stay the same. On the less impressive side, a lot of the music choices felt rather awkward, while some individual scenes (specifically those that take place in Anna’s hotel room) were so poorly lit that they were almost un-watchable.

Ultimately though, the heartfelt quality of the story, dialogue, performances and especially the relationship between a son and his father elevate Beginners well and truly above its flaws. What it took Hal seventy-five years to figure that is that you are never as alive as when you are in love. With Beginners, Mills imparts his father’s lesson and encourages us all to learn it as well.

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