Friday, July 1, 2011

Beginners: Poignant to the end

Beginners (2010) • View trailer for Beginners
Four stars. Rating: R, and rather harshly, for mild sensuality and occasional bursts of profanity
By Derrick Bang

Chronic grief is difficult to convey on camera.

It’s not chest-beating and wails of anguish; that may be a credible snap response to a tragedy, but it’s the stuff of extended sorrow only in afternoon soap operas and bad melodramas.
Oliver (Ewan McGregor), not quite certain whether to trust that his budding
relationship with Anna (Mélanie Laurent) will last, attempts to keep her
off-guard with unexpected gestures. But being spontaneous doesn't come
easily to Oliver; it's one of many things he needs to learn while navigating
several unexpected and life-changing events.

Long-term misery is more like a lamp on a dimmer switch; the entire bulb is present, but the inner glow is diminished. One’s aura is muted. Answers to questions are half a heartbeat late; physical movement is sluggish; the eyes never quite focus; smiles seem to appear more because they’re expected — a social convention, to mask the truth — as opposed to reflecting spontaneous delight. One simply doesn’t look or seem involved.

All this is hard to project in a film, precisely because it isn't flashy. Lesser actors try too hard, and miss the desired result entirely.

Meryl Streep caught it, in 1982’s adaptation of Sophie’s Choice. Richard Jenkins did just as well, more recently, in The Visitor. Both earned well-deserved Academy Award nominations for their efforts; Streep won hers.

Ewan McGregor belongs in their company, for his rich, quietly layered and subtly precise work in writer/director Mike Mills’ Beginners. This is a compelling, persuasively nuanced study of personal pain and the cautious attempts at recovery. Mills clearly understands the process, and his story resonates with the utter truth of personal experience. He really nails the process: It’s like learning to exist all over again, and figuring out how to re-assemble the pieces of one’s psyche, because a large chunk has been removed. Permanently.

But navigating grief is only half the equation here; the rest derives from the shock of confronting change so massive that it disrupts one’s sense of the universe ... and, to a great degree, of self.

The time is 2003; we meet Oliver (McGregor) as he embraces the ritual of sifting through another’s possessions — the books, clothes, furniture and boxed clutter that somehow shape an entire life — after having just lost his father to cancer. It’s a doleful process, made even worse by the occasional discovery that prompts an involuntary smile. Oliver shares this experience with Arthur, an expressive Jack Russell Terrier that was his father’s constant companion. Now, with his former master absent, Arthur cannot leave Oliver’s side.

This dog, it must be mentioned, is a treasure: one of the great screen canines, giving a performance every bit the equal of his two-legged co-stars. Actually named Cosmo, this pooch was trained by Mathilde de Cagny, who nurtured another famous Jack Russell — Moose, who played Eddie — during 11 seasons of the TV series Frasier.

Oliver is an artist; he sketches his thoughts — we see many of these — while working at an undefined small company that conceptualizes marketing strategies for various clients. Oliver’s current assignment involves packaging a new image for a pop music group; as this film proceeds, he repeatedly tries to sell them on “the origin of sadness.” Not surprisingly, they resist the notion.

Mills’ film exists in three timelines: the distant past of Oliver’s childhood, spent mostly in the company of his mother, Georgia (Mary Page Keller); the present, as Oliver confronts his grief; and the recent past, as Oliver processes the revelation that emerges from his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), in the wake of Georgia’s passing.

At age 75, having just buried his wife, Hal tells his only son that he’s always been gay, but has kept it hidden ... and now, with this chance at a fresh start, will hide it no longer.

Hal’s as good as his word, and by no means tentative. He hurls himself explosively into gay pride: a new wardrobe, new friends, political activism and a gay lover (Goran Visnjic, as Andy). Oliver, suddenly embraced by the father whose closed-off aloofness he never before understood, is both baffled and delighted. At 75, finally, Hal becomes warm and affectionate to the son he kept at such a distance.

Then — bam! — Hal is diagnosed with stage four cancer.

Yes, all this happened to Mills. With what must be regarded as disciplined artistic genius, he channeled his myriad feelings into this screenplay, and this film; and he found two consummate actors to reproduce the wild euphoria of this incredibly unusual and painfully intimate experience, in the process creating a film that digs beneath surface armor and reveals great truths about ourselves.

“For me,” Mills explains, in his press notes, “a lot of grief is like running in the dark in a forest, sprinting forward, trying to get to something.”

The problem, of course, is that we fear we’ll not recognize that “something” when we encounter it.

Mills layers fiction onto heartbreaking fact with the introduction of a third character. Oliver, post-Hal, allows his co-workers to drag him to a costume party. Even here, Arthur comes along; Oliver can’t bear to leave him behind, wailing with loneliness. Oliver encounters a captivating young woman who, in a deliciously ironic quirk, is suffering a painful bout of laryngitis. Oliver won’t talk, and she can't talk.

Anna (Mélanie Laurent, well remembered from Inglourious Basterds) is an actress, in town only as long as her current assignment. Her existence takes place in a series of soulless hotel rooms, where she ducks phone calls from her father, who calls only to complain about his own misery.

Mills interweaves his three time streams quite cleverly. Oliver’s childhood self, usually alone in his mother’s company, grows up seeing the isolation of her marriage, and comes to believe that intimacy isn’t possible. Decades later, once Hal comes out of the closet, he leads by example: displaying a newfound joie de vivre that he hopes will help his son emerge from the barrier he has constructed around his emotions.

Finally, as Oliver and Anna spend more time together — while she struggles with her own trust issues — we get captivated by this chapter’s suspense, and wonder if Oliver successfully absorbed his father’s final loving lesson.

Or if it came too late.

The three timelines are intercut with montages that allow Oliver to explain — to us, and to himself — how things were different in the 1950s, the 1990s and the early 21st century. Mills delicately illustrates the differences in these two men, father and son, based on when they came of age. Hal’s problems, Mills explains, are external, driven by social norms: 1950s conservatism, homophobia and strawberry-lensed depictions of what “the good life” is supposed to be. Oliver and Anna’s issues, by contrast, are internal; they are haunted by what they have become, as a result of growing up with their respective parents.

The easy assumption, by this point, is that this film is an unvarying downer; nothing could be further from the truth. McGregor and Laurent share wonderful chemistry; Oliver and Anna come together gently, delicately and charmingly. She’s simply not like any woman he’s ever met, and she inspires him to spontaneity, which he desperately needs.

But even being able to understand spontaneity is part of the gift Oliver receives from his newly invigorated father. Plummer exudes vitality and dignity, mingled with sharp perception; Hal knows that he’s partly to blame for his son’s isolation, and intends to correct this quiet tragedy. Their shared casual comfort with each other is poignant; I loved watching them buy books together.

Then too, Oliver’s later, almost confidential relationship with Arthur is both touching and hilarious. Oliver talks constantly to the dog, and comes to believe that Arthur talks back: not really, of course, but emotionally, in the way that matters. We viewers are privileged to “hear” some of Arthur’s responses as subtitles; they’re invariably perceptive and hilarious.

Early on with Anna, as Oliver wonders aloud how to proceed, Arthur displays insightful canine logic: “Tell her the darkness is about to drown us, unless something drastic happens right now!”

Visnjic’s Andy is another deceptive character. We’re not sure we like him, at first; his immediate flaw is a lack of fidelity in his relationship with Hal. Oliver, sharing our snap reaction, doesn’t approve; at the same time, he recognizes that if his father has made peace with it, he can do no less. (Oliver, it must be mentioned, hasn’t a shred of homophobia; any issues he has with Andy come from elsewhere.)

All these characters are imbued with casual touches that are both real and delightful. Andy loves to surprise Hal with the threat of what bug might be concealed within his cupped hands. Hal is gently polite at moments when one would expect him to react more strongly. Young Oliver and his mother play a game where she cocks a finger and “shoots” him, and the boy slumps to one side; she then decides whether his “death” is sufficiently persuasive. (Images of Clint Eastwood and Clyde the orangutan come to mind.) These are the little bits of business that we share with each other, when we’re confident that nobody else is watching.

Mills’ final, brilliant touch comes with the very last scene, when we — at last! — fully understand the context of his film’s title.

Beginners is only Mills’ second feature film — although he also has made numerous documentaries and shorts — after 2005’s Thumbsucker. That film also attracted an A-list cast (Tilda Swinton, Vince Vaughn, Keanu Reeves) but was a bit too outré to crack the mainstream. Beginners deserves to do much better, as its truths are more approachable.

This one’s a revelatory joy. Seek it out.


  1. Must see this film. Any idea if it's coming to Davis?

  2. So far, just at Sacramento's Tower Theater. Nothing definite yet regarding Davis, but it certainly could turn up at the Varsity.