Beginners (2011)

Written & Directed by Mike Mills

What to say about this film. Hmm. Well it comes from a second time director, Mike Mills, whose debut feature, Thimbsucker, received predominantly good reviews. In addition, he has assembled a pretty good cast for this film, including Christopher Plummer, who at the age of 81 finally received an Oscar nomination for his performance as Leo Tolstoy in last year’s The Last Station. The film also features Ewan McGregor, who has been nothing short of solid his entire career. He doesn’t seem to get the accolades he deserves because he has given good performances in good movies time after time. And rounding out the cast is French actress Melanie Laurent, who garnered fame in the US with her performance in Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 film Inglourious Basterds, when she played the unforgettable Shosanna.

Oddly enough, Laurent plays a French actress in this film too. And oddly enough, her name is Anna. McGregor plays Oliver, a lonely 38 year old artist living in Los Angeles. When their lives cross paths at a costume party, Oliver begins to feel a new sense of hope in his life, and Anna, who has similar feelings to those of Oliver’s, attempts to shed her shell of loneliness of a life of never staying in the same place for long. To make matters more interesting is the fact that Oliver’s mother died of cancer four years ago, after which his father Hal (Plummer) pronounced that he was gay, and had been his whole life. But when he too succumbs to cancer, Oliver is forced to begin all over again, and Anna is his chance.

What I definitely liked about the film was Christopher Plummer, whose infectious lust for life is easily the best part about the movie. Yes, he lived 40 years of a marriage to a woman all the while he was gay. But he did love her, and he says so more than once, but it is a bit sad about her, which comes back to Hal perhaps being a little greedy and weak, conforming to the norms of society. But once “freed” of his marriage, which sounds awful, he does embrace life and live the rest of his days in unrestrained bliss, even as his health diminishes. However, Plummer’s character is not on screen for nearly enough time given his vibrancy.

And maybe that is because this is not a film about vibrancy, but rather about sadness and loneliness. The broken hopelessness of the relationship that seems to be Oliver and Anna is a tough go. It seems as though they both want it to work out, hope that it will work out, but deep down their experience tells them it won’t. While the two have chemistry, I do think Mills failed to completely sell me on their romance. Apart from the meet cute scene that kicked off the romance, the two never seemed to do more than sit around and hardly talk. It felt forced and fake, even if Laurent and McGregor didn’t.

The film works most of the time, but I still struggled with the purpose of the non-linear storytelling. The constant back and forth between past and present. It establishes where Oliver is coming from in the present, but it too felt forced and just did not come off as neatly or as clearly as Mills may have planned. There is a bit of weird narration too that seems out of place with the rest of the movie. I enjoyed myself, I left entertained and with enough to think about, but I also think there were too much bland and weary moments. The ending does seem to wrap it up very nicely however, suggesting that, despite our thoughts and our experiences in the world, looking up to our parents and other notable figures, that in the end there are no experts on life. We are all just beginners.


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