One of those movies that makes you wanna live.
Beginners is about a single, thirty-something graphic designer whose mother passes away, at which point his seventy-something father tells him that he’s gay and is determined to spend his last years being gung-ho about it. Not one to rain on his old man’s parade, the graphic designer openly supports his dad’s new lifestyle. Soon after, his father starts going steady with a younger man, but then he gets diagnosed with cancer and he passes away having lived the life he’d always wanted. Soon after that, the graphic designer hits it off with a French actress at a Halloween party, they start going steady too, but after a long history of sabotaging his relationships thanks to his parents’ shell of a marriage, the graphic designer begins to worry whether he’ll sabotage this one as well or follow in his father’s open-hearted footsteps.
It’s based on writer/director Mike Mills’ relationship with his own late father, and I’m still pretty flabbergasted at how quickly I realized that this was one of the best things I’ve seen all year. From the outset, it might seem like the gay dad aspect is the one thing keeping this from being a pretty run-of-the-mill story about real people with real problems. And even though that’s the very outlook that kept me from bumping this to the top of my Netflix queue for so long, I love movies about real people with real problems, and I feel shame for having taken so long. But in going with the theme of this movie, better late than never.
The big thing that sold me on this in record time is that it’s just plain magical, almost in the way that Amelie is. There’s an undercurrent of sadness in these characters that comes in the form of death, grieving, or broken hearts, but more than anything, they stand as a call to life despite the sorrow. It’s little things, like roller skating through a hotel lobby after getting kicked out of a roller rink, or dressing up as Sigmund Freud at a costume party and getting to a know a beautiful girl by analyzing her on the couch. I don’t know, that might not sound like much in text, but when you see how much these characters get out of everyday pleasures and cutting loose in the most grade school of fashions, you’ll wish you were there with them. When I wasn’t choking up at the parts where you can imagine things would get emotional, I was grinning my face off and just having a grand old time watching these kids in adult’s clothing.
As a writer, Mills gives us personality and authenticity to spare. All of the little routines and habits of these characters don’t feel like creativity in motion, they feel like a journal in motion. It’s personal, it’s funny, and it’s special to see movies that wear its heart on its sleeve like this. And as a director, Mills does an outstanding job of making this his own and using the screen as his canvas. It helps to see it in action, but there’s something very Vonnegut about the way Mills tells this story. There’s a dog who speaks in subtitles, the plot jumps back and forth from past to present so much that you’ll be doubling back to remember there’s two story lines, and McGregor’s character, Oliver, tells us the history of his family by showing us still images of what life looks like now and what life looked like in the ’50s. If you’ve read Breakfast of Champions or Slaughterhouse-Five, you’ll know what I’m talking about, and being Kurt Vonnegut’s #1 fan, I was all about it. It’s unique, it’s out there, and not only does it work wonders from a stylistic standpoint, but it’s an effective, non-preachy approach that speaks volumes about the way people and society has changed over the course of a generation.
And like I said, the gay dad aspect is definitely one of the more attention-grabbing things about this, and the subject of gay rights ends up playing a pretty substantial role as a result. It’s not there’s a political agenda behind it, it’s just a testament to how warped our opinions of homosexuality once were, how far we’ve come, and how it’s not about who you love, but that you love that matters in the long run. I also feel like it’s a lot more common to see stories about kids coming out to their parents rather than vice-versa, and I love how honest Oliver is throughout about how it affects him. There are no screaming matches or flipped lids, instead there’s understanding and feelings that go unspoken until the time is finally right. They’re friends as much as they are family, but what’s most interesting about the dynamic between Oliver and his father is the way one is stifled by his own insecurities and other was stifled by a world that diagnosed homosexuality as a mental illness. Their stories are similar in that they both have the chance at a fresh start, but where they differ is how they tackle the opportunity in front of them. It’s impossible to miss how much these two care about each other and how important they are in each other’s lives, and it’s even more interesting seeing Hal’s influence on Oliver play out in Oliver’s relationship with his main squeeze, Anna.
Not being the son to a gay father, I didn’t really have much going in the way of empathizing through personal experience, but being pretty confident that offspring are in my future, I’d be mighty pleased if my kid and I had a relationship like Oliver and Hal’s. And on that note, I just loved Christopher Plummer in this movie as Hal. It doesn’t hurt that he’s got a contagious smile and never stops showing it off, but being someone who tries to live by the phrase “Get busy living, or get busy dying,” Hal is a man after my own heart. Plummer has always been one of the legends and this is one of his best roles in years that’s totally deserving of the hype. Nothing too flashy, he just brings a whole lot of a humanity to a man you’ll adore spending time with.
And better yet, Ewan McGregor is just as good. Even if his circumstances aren’t relatable, his down-to-Earth performance absolutely is. I’ve always been a huge McGregor fan, so it’s always nice to see him doing his thing and doing it well. And while her only time in the spotlight is through a handful of childhood memories, Mary Page Keller is great as Oliver’s hilarious, deadpan, kid-at-heart mom; the gorgeous Melanie Laurent – who is quickly becoming one of my new favorite actresses – is magnetic and delightful as Oliver’s love interest, Anna; and Arthur, Oliver’s semi-telepathic Jack Russel Terrier, will make you want to run out and buy one. Did anyone else know that they were originally bred as hunting dogs? Interesting, right? Thanks, Mike Mills!
But aside from the Jack Russell Factoids, there’s a lot of wisdom to take away from this movie and there’s something very brave about having the courage to live and having the courage share it with the world at large. As much as it’s about Mills coping with the death of his parents, it’s about what Mills gained from their lives and what we can all gain from them in turn. I hope I’m not belaboring the point, but Beginners is just a wonderful little slice of life that comes from, and goes right to, the heart. Sometimes the only things preventing us from taking life by the reigns is ourselves, and sometimes we need a reminder to of that. Consider this a heads up.