Imagine you’re 38, and six months after your mother dies, your 75 year-old father tells you he’s gay. Such is the dilemma for Oliver, who has borne witness to what many folks today will call a forced marriage between his parents. Now Oliver must reexamine his life, try to contemplate his childhood and see his father in a new light.
The story is autobiographical in nature, a product of director Mike Mill’s life and relationship with his father, whose decision to come out of the closet after his mother’s passing was nothing less than shocking. However, Mills desire to put this strange quandary on screen displays a unique look back into the past and present and with closer examination explains why this type of family upbringing may not have been so obtuse after all.
Beginners opens with Oliver, a seemingly successful artist, played by the intriguing Ewan McGregor, clearing out all of his deceased father Hal’s furniture, clothes, and knickknacks. Arthur, his father’s overly clever and needy dog, is the only thing that is saved from the dumpster. Once we are aware of Hal’s death, Mills then jumps us into alternating timelines, going back to Oliver’s early childhood, cutting to the remaining four years of Hal’s life as an openly gay man, and then back to the present post-father reality. Mills uses a similar style to Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s films, but his style is more closely related to Blue Valentine’s sentimental structure, not the 21 Grams chaotic mesh of memory, but an intricate weaving of symbolic recollections and reflections.
Hal, played by a vivacious and free-spirited Christopher Plummer, soon after revealing to his son the truth, starts embracing his liberated existence. He goes to clubs, has all guy movie night parties, and has a bonding relationship with a young fitness trainer named Andy. His marriage to his late wife Georgia was built upon the mutual understanding that he was a closeted human being. Now at 75, his homosexual exuberance bursts out and infects his company. His full heart keeps his spirits alive even when the specter of death soon approaches his escaped paradise.
Jump to the present, and a sad-eyed Oliver reluctantly attends a costume party dressed as Sigmund Frued, fitting for a man in need of his own introspection. There he meets Anna (Melanie Laurent, famous for her role in Inglorious Basterds), a flimsy French actress with whom he finds a spark, even when in their first interaction her laryngitis renders her unable to speak. She flirtingly writes to him with pen and pad, and parallels his dog Arthur’s attempts at communication, who in dire times connects telepathically with Oliver by staring into his troubled eyes. Her character is somewhat shaded, as is her career, but her companionship soon brings Oliver out of his doubt-filled darkness.
Mills sporadically interplays the historical aspect of Oliver’s condition with his social life in a necessary way. He distinguishes the standards and customs of people in the fifties and the liberating standards in the 21st century. His unique cinematic touch adds flavor to the films thoughtful symbolism, both in his lighting and creative way of projecting thoughts, memories, and allusions onto the screen. Each memoir of his father’s marriage and hidden away life gives more insight to Oliver, a man living in a world that understands homosexuality as natural, not a disease.
Sitting with his Jack Russell Arthur on a park bench, Oliver quizzically explains to his father’s dog how terriers were once bred to hunt foxes. Now, people own them for their cuteness he claims, and the closest thing to going after a fox is scurrying after a tennis ball. The symmetry between Arthur and Oliver’s father becomes quite clear; a man among many bred to have a “Life Magazine wife”, bred back then to closet his instinct.
The gloomy and confused Oliver uses his time with Anna as catharsis, growing a relationship based on questioning, honesty, and with the understanding that two people can be in the same place but still find a way to leave each other. Each moment he spends with his father, he breaks past his childhood impression of misconceived idealisms. He redefines his approach to relationships that allows him to inquire and not conform to antiquated expectations of perfection. Each character develops with a slow pace and yet we still relish in every one of Oliver and Hal’s communions; limited exposure to a loving alliance.
Beginners gives a warm depiction of self-exploration and learning to find love. Hal in his late seventies still manages to find joy after a long-endured caged existence, if only for his last four years. He leaves his son and us a tasteful reminder. It’s never too late to begin again.