By Janine Gericke.
I have to say that I adore this film. Beginners is Mike Mills’s second feature film, following 2005’s Thumbsucker, which intrigued me through its vulnerable perspective. In Beginners, Mills creates a delicate story based on his own experiences. It’s packed with a spread of incredibly sweet and absolutely heartbreaking moments. At the age of 75, Hal Fields (Christopher Plummer) comes out to his son, Oliver (Ewan McGregor). Shortly after, Hal is diagnosed with cancer and lives his remaining years the way he always wanted: surrounded by his friends, his young lover, his adorable Jack Russell Terrier and his son. There were moments in the film that left me giggling and moments that had me in tears. The environment Mills creates is startling, but familiar like returning to your family’s old home long after you’ve moved away. More than anything, I just wanted to curl up with these characters.
The film opens with Oliver’s narration: “This is 2003, this is what the sun looks like, and the stars. This is the president. And this is the sun in 1955, and the stars, and the president. My parents got married in 1955, they had a child and they stayed married for 44 years.” While Oliver is taking us through the history of his life, we see images of just that, the sun, the stars, and photographs of President George W. Bush and President Dwight D. Eisenhower. This is just one of many motifs that Mills’s uses throughout his film. It’s a charming way to give the audience a better understanding of who these characters are and how their environments shaped them.
When we meet Oliver, he is packing up his father’s house. As he stuffs and tapes boxes, he’s watched over by his father’s wise and stoic Jack Russell Terrier, Arthur. Oliver drives Arthur to his home, and walks him around, giving the dog a guided tour. As they walk through the house, Arthur closely follows, intently listening to every word. This scene reveals Oliver’s endearing personality in a way that left the audience glowing. Mills also uses subtitles for what Arthur is thinking – like an homage to 1960s New Wave films, where every character has an inner dialogue. Mills even gives a nod to the fact that Arthur’s thoughts are actually Oliver’s, which reveals even more of Oliver’s romanticism. Arthur’s thoughts are short and meaningful: Upon their first day together, Arthur lets Oliver know, “While I understand up to 150 words – I don’t talk.”
Mills tells his story using flashbacks of a young Oliver and his parents. Through these flashbacks, we can see that Oliver’s mother Georgia (Mary Page Keller) was very present in his life, but we never catch a full glimpse of his father and we never get to see Hal’s relationship with his wife. The only affection Hal shows her is a kiss on the cheek on his way out the door. Even then, his face is never turned to the camera. Throughout the film, the camera acts as an observer, many times following people or focusing on their backs, as if we act as another character in the film, just watching.
Beginners is a very stylish film. I found myself drooling over Anna’s clothes and ogling Hal’s airy modern Los Angeles home. Every little detail is meticulously curated, but feels effortless. The homes seem very lived in and Anna’s clothes seem like they have just been plucked from her many travels. I’m sure this eye for detail comes from Mills’s work as a graphic designer. Mills has created album cover work for Air and Sonic Youth, artwork for Kim Gordon’s clothing line x-girl, not to mention numerous gallery exhibitions. His music video for Blonde Redhead’s 2007 single Top Ranking, which features his wife Miranda July striking one-second poses, is a great example of his aesthetic: beauty with a wink and a smile. He knows how to tell a human story but, just as in life, it’s important to have some humor. Oliver is also an artist, who creates illustrations for the band The Sads. He just can’t seem to get out of his own head in order to do his job. Rather than creating something vibrant for the band, he offers them a foldout cover that he calls “an illustrated history of sadness.”
The relationships in the film are the real heart of Beginners. Oliver and Hal develop a closer bond after Hal comes out to him and even more so when Hal becomes ill. Oliver takes care of his father, he spends time with his father’s friends and he appreciates being able to see his father happy and in love. When Oliver meets Anna (Melanie Laurent), he allows himself to really fall for her, being influenced by his father’s decision to change his life and to be happy. Oliver and Anna meet at a Halloween party, and she can’t even speak to him—doctor’s orders due to laryngitis. It is a great introduction and she seems like a perfect fit for him, a little mysterious but also a bit amusing. Oliver and Anna become quite a charming couple: roller-skating in the hallway of her hotel and climbing a billboard for some intellectual tagging. In many ways this mirrors Oliver’s relationship with his mother, which was sad but whimsical. The other love in the film, Hal’s relationship with his younger lover Andy, is also very sweet. Though they do not have a monogamous relationship, it is obvious that they care very much for each other. You can sense the pain in both Oliver and Andy at Hal’s passing.
What makes Beginners so special is that we accept these people for who they are, we relate to them. Mills makes it easy to connect to the major changes in their lives, like falling in love and dealing with loss. We grow very fond of these characters, even though we only get to spend a short time with them. Knowing that elements of this story are taken from Mills’s own life drives this feeling home. It’s an endearing film that I can’t wait to see again. As Oliver states to Arthur “this is what I am supposed to feel like.” And Arthur’s response is “I hope it lasts.”
Janine Gericke is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.
Read Jacob Mertens’ review of Beginners here.