Beginners: a movie about a 30 something year old man whose father reveals at 74, after his wife’s death, that he’s gay. The trailer features a cool opening that establishes the setting by having Oliver, the main character, show the sun, stars, and president in 2003. It also shows some clips of Oliver’s own budding romance with a French actress. The critics hail it for its originality. Sounds like a charming indie movie that I’d enjoy. Too bad that wasn’t the case.
I was really looking forward to Beginners and was sure that it would be quirky yet charming with excellent performances and an empowering message about life; however, it didn’t live up to my expectations. Ewan McGregor, Mélanie Laurent (Run Shosanna!), and Christopher Plummer especially, all show their great acting chops in this movie. Despite this, the film never really found its purpose, but rather meandered through Oliver’s life, resulting in an unnecessary (and rather long) running time of 2 hours.
The relationship between Oliver and Anna is not properly developed. Their initial meeting, which didn’t involve any talking thanks to Anna’s laryngitis, was cute, but the few rare times they left Anna’s hotel room (How could she afford to live there anyway?) and went on dates didn’t seem to serve a purpose in the film. It felt like Mike Mills, the director, thought that by showing more of their relationship we would understand both characters better or even think their relationship was quirky and cute. Unfortunately, that is not what happened. Oliver and Anna didn’t seem to talk much, but were oddly close (enough to hold hands like a couple the day after they met each other). A majority of the scenes where they do talk feature them randomly admitting depressing information about their parents and childhood.
As I’m sure you all have gathered by now, I don’t like unanswered questions in movies (I’ve only seen this work in a few rare cases) and Beginners had way too many. The ending tried to do something similar to The Graduate, but it just left me annoyed with a “been there, done that” feeling. I expected a revelation about Oliver’s mother since there were a good number of flashbacks to her behaving badly (like putting her head on a random woman’s shoulder while she was talking) when she and Oliver went to outings. No answer was ever provided for who was actually calling Anna’s hotel room. I was also waiting for a better explanation for why Oliver let his relationships fall apart (besides his lame “I thought it wouldn’t work out”). The scenes with him drawing at his job (whatever it was that he did) were weird and could have been removed. To be fair, some of this openness may be accounted for the fact that the story is based on Mills‘s own family.
Now for some positives about the film. I absolutely adored Arthur, Hal’s (Oliver’s father) dog. The scenes with Oliver talking to him are funny and adorable. As for the actual style of the movie, I normally get annoyed when films use artsy camera movies and effects; however they actually worked in this movie. The handheld camera made the film seem more personal, almost as if the camera was spying on Oliver’s life. The random inserts, particularly of a quarter when Oliver’s father finds out he has a tumor that size, also did an amazing job of helping me connect with Oliver and display how the mind jumps around in times of turmoil.
Which brings me to Hal. His story was touching and saved this movie from a complete lack of purpose . It was great to see an old man decide that no matter what his age or health condition, he was going to embrace and love himself and live life to the fullest. The scenes about being gay in the 1950s show how far we have come in terms of civil rights for all people. Hal’s relationship with Andy was sweet and the father-son relationship between Hal and Oliver felt genuine. I was glad to see that Oliver did change somewhat over the course of the movie, as him hugging Andy at the end exhibited.
One of the best scenes in the film is when Oliver recites a passage from The Velveteen Rabbit.
By the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.
While I didn’t enjoy both stories presented in Beginners, I did learn a powerful lesson from Hal’s story. It is important to love and be who you are because only then are you truly real.