Writer/ Director Mike Mills’ returns to the big screen (after his 2007 documentary about depression in Japan ‘Does Your Soul Have A Cold?’) for Beginners. It is a largely auto-biographical work, with Ewan McGregor delivering a brilliant performance as Oliver (or the ‘Mike Mills’ of the story). Oliver’s father Hal (Christopher Plummer) comes out to his son, and the world, as gay, shortly after his wife’s passing. Hal had been locked in a 44-year marriage of mutual respect but not passion. His new-found liberation sees him ‘go hard’ in a joyous celebration- complete with new boyfriend, new wardrobe and a fresh outlook. His rapid metamorphosis is witnessed by his son who is a bemused, but largely encouraging bystander. A few short years later, Hal is diagnosed with cancer but he plans to keep the belated party going (“Let’s not rush and tell everyone”). Plummer is just fabulous in this role of a lifetime, you feel everything he says, and just wish for him to have more time to live a full, true life.
Oliver’s attempt to make sense of his own life and his family life. The role of Oliver’s own memory of events and images from his childhood are examined- does he remember these experiences (his parents kissing goodnight, his father’s nights away from home) correctly or is he being forced to recount things a certain way, because of what he now knows- that his father has always been gay. Oliver’s mother, played by Mary Page Keller, delivers a standout performance. In just a few quick flashbacks, she teaches us so much about Oliver and about why he is, the way he is. Like Hal’s concealment of his sexuality, Oliver’s mother’s hid the fact that she was Jewish her husband’s family and the world. Keller’s character reminded me of Mill’s wife Miranda July. There were the obvious physical resemblances- but moreso her unique quirkiness throughout, such as the contortion of her body to “feel” an artwork at a gallery- which evoked July’s dancing scenes in The Future. Through flashbacks, you feel Oliver grieving anew for his mother since his father’s admission- one passionless marriage, two lives unfulfilled. There’s also Arthur, Hal’s dog (later Oliver’s) who watches every move Oliver makes and speaks to him through subtitles. This is a needy, dependent love kind of love. Oliver lectures him about how Jack Russell terriers were bred to hunt foxes and thus, makes us wonder how much of our personality and our relationship outcomes are pre-determined by our parents, and completely out of our control.
Shortly into the film, Oliver meets Anna (Melanie Laurent) at a dress-up party that his friends have dragged him to. This is the first time we hear the piano music which recurs throughout the film will make your heart hurt. One of those pieces of music that just makes you want to cry- not because you’re happy or sad, just because. He is immediately smitten but also haunted by the fear of repeating his parent’s mistake: “I just don’t think this is what I’m supposed to feel like,” he muses when things start going awry. He tells Anna that their generation has the joy of a sadness which their parents didn’t have a time to feel- despite his mother and father removing their ‘jewish’ and ‘gay’ badges respectively. Laurent’s performance is absolutely magnetic, I felt myself wondering if it was too late to change my personality so I was more like her. My only gripe with the film would be that at times the twee level was a notch too high- especially with whimsical Anna.
The past and present of Oliver’s life are expertly woven together into a series of affecting moments, as his relationships (with his parents, with Anna, with his dog) intersect. “This is what love feels like” the movie’s tagline reads. If that’s the case, it is unexpected, deeply touching, and rewarding. This is what a good movie looks like.
Here is our chat with Mike Mills about his movie. He tells us about writing this film, shortly after his Dad’s passing: