Sunday, December 4, 2011

"I don't want to be just theoretically gay. I want to do something about it."

Film: Beginners
Year: 2010
Writer/Director: Mike Mills
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Mélanie Laurent, Goran Visnjic, Kai Lennox, Mary Page Keller, Keegan Boos, China Shavers, Melissa Tang. 
Running time: 105 min.

One thing I've always wondered about is how 'real' movies can be. Some aim to be as realistic as possible, and then end up being depressive bores. I've always thought that movies are meant to be more exciting than real life, but I do enjoy one of those 'realistic' movies every now and again. Beginners is a perfectly 'real' movie, which shows both the happy things in life and the sad things in life. The story is told through the eyes of Oliver Fields (Ewan McGregor), an artist who receives two big announcements from his father Hal (Christopher Plummer): he has terminal cancer, and he is also gay. The film zips back and forth between when Oliver was trying to deal with his father's illness, and after Hal has died, when Oliver meets French actress Anna (Mélanie Laurent). Peppered in between are moments from Oliver's childhood with his mother (played brilliantly by Mary Page Keller) which have seemingly shaped him as a man, and also some superbly edited scenes showing what life is like. While one may suspect that this is a film focusing on the relationship between Oliver and his dying father, it's not. Rather, it's a film examining all of the relationships that Oliver has with everyone.

Beginners is a bizarre movie. Not in the way that it is weird, but in the way that it manages to be extremely sad, even though I found myself laughing along with it for 50% of the movie. That was definitely something that I wasn't expecting when the film opened with Oliver emptying out his dead father's pill collection. The entire film could be described as 'bittersweet'. You could be close to tears in one bit, but there is always something funny just around the corner. I would hesitate to call this film cute, though. Sure, there are plenty of cute moments, but I don't think I could ever look back on this movie as a happy, filled-with-pink-fluffy-unicorns experience. Instead, all I see is sadness, which is sad because I remember the movie being extremely funny. The film examines sadness in a way that doesn't completely depress you. It asks you to compare the sad with the happy. It asks you to have good times when you're stuck in the middle of a bad time. It asks you to smile through your tears. It was such a bizarre feeling. But if anything was cute, it was that dog Arthur. I'm going to teach my puppy to have conversations with me.

Writer/director Mike Mills creates characters that are exciting and complex, ones that we can believe in, for once. Oliver Fields is a character who seems quite shut off from the world, which is a beautiful contrast to Hal coming out and embracing the world where he is allowed to be gay. The relationships which Oliver has with the people close to him are interesting to watch, too. I loved the way that he and Anna met, at a party, when she had laryngitis. She calls him, but of course, she can't talk, so she communicates by pressing the buttons on her phone. Oliver replies, "I've always wanted to have a phone call with someone who can't talk." For some reason, at that moment, I just felt butterflies in my stomach. Their relationship is so precisely done...they don't turn into the average sad-guy-meets-manic-pixie-dream-girl relationship which is usually a staple in these kinds of films. They're just two people with very real kinds of problems who deal with it in a real way. I can't help but wonder what ever became of Anna's acting career, though.

But of course, while it doesn't 'dominate' the film, the stand-out relationship was the one between Oliver and Hal. It's so lovely to watch Hal as he gets this new lease on life, making all of these new friends and taking on all of these new opportunities, and Oliver is always there, supporting him. Oliver really cares about him, and is accepting of whatever choices his father makes, even learning from them. What helps even more is that Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer are perfectly cast as father and son; they have a chemistry which I usually don't find in other film father and sons. Their characters are both extremely vulnerable, one physically and one mentally, and they bounce this off each other. They're simply lovely, and extremely heart-breaking to watch. Plummer should definitely bag the Oscar. His performance is curious and lively, and he really does make you feel for his character. I literally wanted to cry over how good his performance was.

One of the biggest things I loved about this movie, though, was how much it accepted Hal's sexuality. You could imagine people looking strangely upon it, but the film never allows those people to have their opinion. People just accept Hal, particularly in one of the later moments when Oliver and Anna are reading his application for a personal ad. He says things that in a 'normal' world, only people a third of his age would say. But do Oliver and Anna care? No. Did I care? No. What Mike Mills and his terrific characterisation of Hal showed me was that it's never too late to begin. Things can change, people can just have to do something about that change.

What I got:


  1. Lovely review :D

    This was such a good film. I get what you mean by the sad bits, but I sort of felt so happy throughout and after. It probably has something to do with my habit of romanticising sad stuff, but the film really showed that when one lives a happy, content life, the sad parts don't seem to matter so much after all. I especially admired the montages about the different years.

    I loved Plummer and Laurent, but honestly can people just recognise the brilliance that is Ewan McGregor already?! He is easily the most underrated and unrewarded leading man out there. I mean without his slightly introverted, sensible, sad character, we couldn't have gotten the liveliness of Plummer's character or the quirkiness of Laurent's. Ughhhh!

  2. I haven't actually heard a lot about this one but it does sound interesting. My kind of movie for sure.

  3. I really really really can't wait to see it!

    Off-topic: you saw Hunger? Looking forward to your thoughts on it.

  4. I Loved this movie too. 1 thing which I appreciated the most was their use of drawings in the narrative. It was amazing.
    Nice Review.

  5. Honestly, I only liked the dog and Plummer's performance and even that is extremelly overrated. The movie really lacked heart for me and Laurent was just horribly bad.

    Great review!

  6. Great review. I think bittersweet is a good rod for this film. Plummer and McGregor are great (although I wasn't able to relate as well to Laurent), and you are quite right that this film treats gayness as a normal thing, and it's great to see McGregor's acceptance o it in particular. Nice job!

  7. Nikhat - Thanks!
    I don't know why I felt so sad...or feel so sad about it, because I remember a lot of happiness. Oh well. I liked the montages, too. They were awesome.
    McGregor is awesome! He does some amazing work. I particularly loved him in this, and also The Ghost Writer.

    Tyler - Definitely your kind of movie :)

    Lesya - I think you'll love it!
    And yes, I saw Hunger. Expect a review soon!

    SDG - That was awesome, too!

    Sati - I thought it had a lot of heart. But I do agree about Laurent, she didn't blow me away.

    NeverTooEarlyMP - I loved how it treated gayness as a normal thing...the way it should be treated. Thanks!

  8. I'm glad Plummer is getting some love for his performance, but it's a shame that it seems to be at the expense of every other aspect of the film. Beginners is such a finely created bit, it's a shame that no one other facet of it is being remembered as the year end arrives.

  9. I really enjoyed this. It reminded me that romantic films didn't have to be completely vacuous affairs. It was funny, tragic, well-told and featured some fine performances.

  10. Andrew - Yeah, it's a shame about that. It deserves recognition for just about everything!

    Dan - Same! If only more films could be like this one!


You mustn't be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.


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