Sunday, January 08, 2012

Video Store: Beginners

The guiding spirit of Mike Mills' film Beginners is Hal (Christopher Plummer, showing a sensitivity he has probably never been asked to display on screen), newly widowed at 75 and out as gay to his son Oliver (Ewan McGregor). Mills based  his script for Beginners on experiences with his own father, and the film takes the distanced view that Mills must have had of his dad's new life. Oliver appreciates Hal's politically engaged and socially active lifestyle, but he can never really understand the bond that Hal has with his new boyfriend Andy (Goran Visnjic) and a large group of gay friends. Hal has passed away as Beginners opens, we see his coming out and subsequent illness in flashbacks that pop up in the sudden, searing way that memories of a dead parent do. We spend more time with a grieving Oliver (whose sadness is beginning to affect his work as an artist) and with Anna (luminous Melanie Laurent), the actress that Oliver meets at a party and begins dating. The arc of Oliver and Anna's relationship isn't surprising but it is well played; I don't know that I've seen McGregor bite into a role the way he does here in some time, and Laurent's access to her emotions is fresh and astonishing. Mike Mills wants to say something here about modern life, namely that speed and convenience give us more time to wallow in emotion. Hal's anguish at not being able to live openly during the 1950's is not explored; he seems to have gotten on with the business of a career and starting a family. Oliver and Anna each have their own melancholy, but Beginners never gets precious thanks to the performances and Mills' way with a well-chosen music cue. Beginners is a personal film in the best sense of the word, one that uses life experience as a jumping-off point to investigate all manner of ideas about love and the way we live now.

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