I recall having a conversation with a friend and filmmaker who discussed the issues of many indie comedies lacking a heartbeat. He stated that while many films were visually stunning or narratively advanced they still lacked that life that separates a good indie film from its lesser competition. Mike Mill's critically acclaimed and extremely personal film Beginners is an movie with a steady and very apparent heartbeat. I can foresee this film becoming a timeless classic on the study of family and self-acceptance in the face of midlife existential malaise and I am also imagining that it is going to rake in nicely at whatever awards ceremonies it is involved. This film along with Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture are bringing me back around to the world of independent cinema that I had ruled lost with the new millennium. Beginners is a fresh, quirky and real study of life as one person experiences it and is a touching cinematic reminder of how fleeting a person's life can be and that they should live said life to the fullest with the fewest illusions possible. I would be hard pressed to find a more bittersweet collage of images, than what Mill's offers in this film.
Beginners, though non-linear in its narrative, is a relatively simple story. It begins with the thirty-eight year old Oliver (Ewan McGregor) packing the final belongings of his late fathers house. This act alone leads him on a reflection of his own relationships with both of his deceased parents. The film, and Oliver's reflections, paint his mother Georiga (Mary Page Keller) out to be a depressed and drugged out woman whose relationship with her son and husband are distanced and meaningless, leading Georgia to act out in public to spite them both. It would appear as though Georgia's actions are selfish and loathsome, until Oliver is told in another flashback with his aged father that he had, in fact, married Oliver's mother despite being gay. This confession on the part of Oliver's father Hal (Christopher Plummer) leads Oliver to question everything he has understood about his life, including his own relationship with his dad. Fortunately, for Oliver he is able to rekindle his relationship with his dying father purely out of providing support for him and accepting his lifestyle change as a desire that had lingered long before he arrived in the world. Tragically, Hal does die and Oliver is left to clean up what remains, acts that range from dumping out his father large amount of medicine to caring for his telepathic dog. Oliver seems content to graze through life unattached to those around him with only a dog as a companion, until he runs into a mute girl at a costume party who hits on him by writing notes. This woman, Oliver discovers, is a French actress named Anna (Melanie Laurent) and her lack of voice is due solely to a case of laryngitis. The two begin a head on collision of romance and therapy that leads the two down a confusing path of love and fear, which seems doomed for failure until a last minute change of heart makes Oliver realize that he cannot live his life in fear like his father did, because to do so would be to dismiss a chance a true love, even if such love is momentary.
This film is sweet and beautifully shot, but what is perhaps the most captivating element of the film is its ability to seriously deal with contemporary issues without loosing its artistic edge. Beginners clearly has an agenda, particularly its concern with reminding viewers of the unfortunate struggles gay Americans face prior to the new millennium. In freeze frames, Oliver reflects on notions of beauty, politics and family between two years, often using the 1950's and 1960's and a comparison to the year of 2003 in which the film is set. Through this duality Mill's makes it quite clear that for a character like Hal to have been openly gay would have meant his public banishment and a life of solitude. The fact, that he had to hide his own sexual desires until his last months alive are tragic and a character like Oliver helps viewers to comprehend how truly baffling such a ridiculous demand was for people living fifty years ago. More than this though, the film is also a beautiful observation of the seemingly limitless boundaries of love. As I noted earlier, the character of Georgia is painted rather bitterly and shown to be pathetically lost in her own world of ennui. However, in a very touching scene Hal reminds Oliver that he loved his mother and she loved him, their being together was an act of friendship and loyalty. She know of Hal's sexual preference, but agreed to marry him regardless, because she knew the social consequences if he were to remain unmarried. This moment helps Oliver to comprehend much of his confused youth and he grows to respect his mother, as well as the obstacles his father continued to face even in his dying days. Oliver also comes to realize that he cannot expect happiness to emerge through finding his father love, but instead in supporting his decisions while searching for his own source of happiness, a feat that appears to happen in the films closing shot.
This movie is magical and heartbreaking. I am standing behind this as one of the best films in this award season and cannot recommend it enough. Buy a copy and share it with those you care about.