Beginners is a film full of concise existentialisms; beautifully bite-sized sentiments like, “You make me laugh, but it’s not funny.” Writer/Director Mike Mills clearly prefers to keep his axioms digestible, which is good, because there’s no shortage of them to digest. Mills’ second feature takes place in the moment of a man’s life when all he can consider is the universe at large, its flux, its effect, where he fits, and why love is the undisputed destination. In a way, these movies are always going to be the most interesting, because (if done correctly) they offer a ubiquitous perspective of humanity. However you dress it, love is what we all need to feel actualized, and Beginners serves as a beautiful reminder.
The story comes in bits and pieces unconcerned with chronology, dealing mostly with a period in 2003, when Oliver Fields (Ewan McGregor) meets a woman named Anna (Mélanie Laurent) at a party, and they spiral into a soul-baring, can’t-take-my-eyes-off-of-you courtship. As it happens, Oliver’s father Hal (Christopher Plummer) passed away very recently, and this is the film’s second focal point: this period of time following Oliver’s mother’s death, when Oliver’s father came out as a 75-year-old gay man. Hal’s personal revelation is a bomb in the lives of he and his son, and offers Hal a freedom he’d longed for his entire married life. But the true bomb is the sudden diagnosis of Hal’s cancer, a sickness that becomes a character in Beginners. As Oliver explores the once in a lifetime connection he has stumbled into, he works desperately to work through the grief of his father’s death.
Beginners is thoroughly unbeholden to realism. It’s not that the film is surreal, so much as it picks and chooses its reality. There’s nothing unreasonable about the Hal Fields storyline: a man who has spent his life–a life which has witnessed some of the most bigoted moments in our nation’s history–hiding himself from the world, A man who now has the opportunity to explore the full extent of his person. In fact, it is precisely this ideas’s relationship to our current societal conflicts with homosexuality that makes Hal undeniably the most compelling element of the film. But the whirlwind ascent towards soulmatedness by Oliver and Anna is simply too much to hope for. It’s a bit like watching a story of someone winning the lottery: the serendipity of the situation doesn’t keep the audience from connecting to the characters, but it also doesn’t allow us to swallow every last moment. For instance, when Oliver and Anna inevitably stumble in the infant-stages of their relationship, it feels far more like a story beat than a real moment.
But this fluctuation between truth and facsimile rarely gets in the way, as Mills is far too present as a director for us to truly forget we’re watching fiction. From the opening “Hello there, Audience!” narration, Mills makes his presence felt with boisterous choices that can’t be ignored. This is not a complaint. The Director has a terribly engaging style, that, if nothing else, ensures the film is fun to watch from A to Z. What keeps Beginners from being simply an exercise in style, however, is the talent of Mills’ three leads. Ewan McGregor is a peerless choice for the lead, the Scotsman’s ability to be both exceedingly charming and pitifully self-aware are the key components to Oliver’s personal journey. And Melanie Laurent is a hauntingly beautiful Anna, brimming with a weary wisdom that is easy to believe, if for no other reason than her evocative frenchness. It’s Christopher Plummer though who really deserves conversation. Plummer is guaranteed a Supporting Actor nomination, and it’s only partially because he’s so exceptionally good in this role. Hal is a character audiences have never seen before: gay but not effeminate, intelligent but not conservative, charming but not cute, and a senior citizen to boot. He is a man in the midst of a triumphant swan song about love, and while his story seems sad at first, a second glance reveals how extraordinarily he has lived his twilight years. There’s not enough words to describe Plummer’s performance. It benefits from the uniqueness of the character, certainly, and placing Hal on his deathbed adds a weight that brings to mind Jason Robards in Magnolia, but these things are still secondary to the performer. This is, without a doubt, one of the top acting achievements of the year.
Love is terrifying, and that’s ultimately what Beginners is about. It’s about the other parts of love too, but only glancingly, as Oliver spends most of his time working through years of misinformation and crossed wires. Another great performance comes in flashbacks, featuring Mary Page Keller as Oliver’s mother Georgia. Georgia is, in our limited time with her, quite ostensibly an odd fish, but in the most lovable way possible; a perfect companion to a 13-year-old boy. But there’s sadness in her strangeness, and even her young son can see its roots in the lack of fulfillment she finds in her marriage. These melancholy memories, coupled with his father’s own quiet desperation for companionship, fabricate the fear Oliver seems always on the verge of succumbing to. But Beginners doesn’t shed light on these pitfalls as a warning. Much like Eternal Sunshine before it, Beginners shows the good and the bad, with the intention of reminding us that the good is always better.