It isn’t surprising that you probably haven’t seen or even heard of Beginners, one of the best-kept secrets of the year and most unlikely coming-of-age films in a long time.
Beginners, loosely based off of writer-director Mike Mills own life-changing story, follows two “beginners”, a 38 year old man named Oliver (McGregor) and his 75 year old cancer-stricken father Hal (Plummer), who just came out after his wife of four decades passed away. It turns out Hal was gay the whole time, and now wants to take on life and love with unrelenting vigor. Oliver has his own closet to come out of. Struggling with commitment, identity, failure and his father’s issues, Oliver leaves himself secluded, that is, until a gorgeous, flighty French actress Anna (Laurent) comes along provides him a challenge in life, love and time.
Hardly does it seem like these two are typical beginners in such subjects given their ages, but Mills’ quickly shapes his film into an optimistic exploration in starting over and finally learning to get things right, no matter the age. If at times it seems that Oliver and Anna’s relationship is getting weight over a possibly more lush story with Hal’s, the audience should remember that this is a story of a son learning lessons through his dying father, at which point it becomes a very sentimental story.
Even with such a story at hand, there is a lot of room for breakdown. With his heavy premise in mind, Mills crafts the film with eloquent narrative structure, which is divided into three primary spaces of time that briefly overlap: the few years between Hal’s announcement and death, the time after Hal’s death Oliver must endure and other flashbacks from Oliver’s own childhood and recollection of time. The three periods of time are expertly separated and seamed, with some rather odd devices like talking dogs and time capsules to make sure the human stays the variable and its surroundings the constant.
Such deep philosophical issues at hand could weigh down the film, but Mills has small artistic devices that keep the film flowing smoothly, such as the family photo styled slideshows to Oliver’s illustrations of “the history of sadness.”
Perhaps his most tactful devices are his cast, who take on the weighty issues by coasting through the film with grace and charm, enthralling the audience as they undergo arduous transformation. Flashbacks to Oliver’s childhood when he and his mother were kept apart from Hal are juxtaposed Anna and Oliver skating through the hotel lobby.
The way in which Mike Mills portrays life feels like our own, yet distinct for his characters. His observations are specific, focused, bias and character-driven, which allows for a much more dynamic take on his themes than those of Terrance Malick’s in Tree of Life. Mills offers the “more linear narrative” remedy actor Sean Penn wished for from Malick. Where Tree of Life becomes too ambitious, too focused on capturing totality or emotional connection to nature rather than character or human interaction with environment, Beginners becomes grounded, relatable and inviting.
Beginners’ greatest successes are when it creates specific moments and memories both the audience savors in the movie, and would in their own lives. These details, whether humorous or stressful, are key in understanding how we will cope with what has yet to come.