Beginners Dir. Mike Mills

[Focus Features; 2011]

Styles: sad bastard comedy
Others: Stolen Kisses, Punch-Drunk Love, Lake Tahoe

Losing a parent puts a person in a very delicate situation in pretty much every way, but probably most delicate when it comes to forming new relationships. Along with an intense sadness, what you get when your mother or father dies is the horrible taste of freedom, of complete independence, for the first time. You may have been working and paying the bills and dating people you want to marry for years by the time it happens, but on the day of that death, when you realize you have asked your dad for the last bit of advice he will ever give you, you are finally on your own. The next time you find yourself unable to figure out a rocky relationship, there’ll be no one to consult but yourself.

Director Mike Mills captures this feeling, among others, nicely in his new movie, Beginners.

In it, Ewan McGregor plays Oliver, a man nearing middle age who spends his days drawing cartoons for a design firm. Although his work is ostensibly for clients, Oliver uses drawing time mainly for personal catharsis (a word he learned from his neglected, acidic mother). Of catharsis he needs as much as he can get. He’s normally a sullen man, but things have gotten worse since the recent death of his father. He’s got the look of grief on him no matter where he goes — the baggage of a dozen failed relationships and the loss of both his parents written across his face. Some of it he manages to get out in his work, but clearly not enough.

One night, his friends drag him to a costume party. He goes dressed as Freud, carrying the terrier he acquired when his father passed and using it as a cute little conversation-shield. Despite his best efforts at isolation, he meets Charlie Chaplin, a beautiful French girl whose name he won’t learn until their second date. Freud and Chaplin, the analyst and the mute comedian, hit it off with a near-silent electricity, the product of subtle, emotional performances by McGregor and Melanie Laurent as Chaplin. When she regains her ability to speak, Chaplin tells Oliver that her name is Anna. They spend their first night in each other’s arms and fall effortlessly into dating. They appear meant for one another. They have sweet sex; he makes her laugh, she makes him smile; and everything they do together seems to feel better than it would alone. As their relationship unfolds, it becomes obvious to them both that they’ve found something special.

But Oliver is always thinking about his dad, Hal (Christopher Plummer). Even laying in bed being held by Anna, he’s thinking of the months he spent helping his father die as comfortably as possible of cancer. The movie pointedly shifts back and forth between Oliver falling in love with Anna and Oliver dealing with death. Both have meant juggling complex emotions and trying to square them with his idea of himself as a person he doesn’t really like. Hal and Anna are two people who see (saw) something good in him, the one and then the other. Together, they represent a kind of double-whammy of personal revelation, the impact of which is the subject of Beginners.

The developing love between Oliver and Anna, beginning with their costumes and leaving off with kind of cross-country comedy of errors, often comes across as movie-cute. But, maybe because they met in disguise, playing different roles, their relationship might be best thought of as a highly choreographed routine between two sad clowns. It’s obvious we’re watching an act, something constructed — two people as perfectly eccentric, morose, and yet interesting as Oliver and Anna never fell in love quite so easily — but the act is an honest attempt to breathe life into old emotions. By contrast, Oliver’s relationship with his father is restrained and sober. Oliver earnestly tries to keep Hal, a gay man who came out late in life, as fulfilled as possible. He cooks for him, reads to him, and tries to stay out of the way of his relationship with a younger man. Two people as essentially different as Oliver and Hal might not seem like they would get along so well either. Yet both relationships are deeply believable.

This is Mike Mills’ second feature. He has an assurance that says he’d rather tell stories with film than with any other medium. He’s interested in the details of life’s simple difficulties — relationships and loss — and he captures them deftly, with soft lighting, tight framing, and a sharp, sad sense of comedy that is nonetheless funny. He’s designed what feels like a thickly autobiographical film, yet a light feeling comes from watching it. He’s also an effortless stylist whose style is thoroughly justified. At one point, we hear Oliver, in voice-over, offer a list of words that connote some of the strongest experiences in life — sex, healing, serenity, etc. — while the screen is washed in one solid color for each word. This feels like arch stylistic conceit, until Mills cuts to footage of a gay pride parade, and we realize that he’s been showing us the colors of the rainbow on the gay flag, and that Oliver has really been talking about his dad.

Beginners is a movie about painful experience that is a breeze to watch, a romantic comedy that hits honest notes without skimping on the romance. I watch movies in hopes of finding the type of proof that Beginners offers: that other people feel the same things I do, and that some of them have the talent to translate them to film.

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