Review: Mike Mills’s “Beginners” (2010)

A dog (Cosmo) and his new owner (Ewan McGregor) both looking for love amid death in Mike Mills's "Beginners."

by Rio Liang

After the death of his recently out-of-the closet father Hal (Christopher Plummer), thirty-eight-year-old graphic designer Oliver (Ewan McGregor) must shake a commitment phobia learned from his parents, lest it doom a budding relationship with his newest love, Anna (Melanie Laurent, who at times reminded me of Marlee Matlin and Nastassja Kinski). This deceptively simple premise could have easily gone the way of cliche, but Mike Mills’s “Beginners” hardly goes a beat without some fresh take on an old idea. I saw the film at a Los Angeles Times Book Festival screening this past weekend, and was, along with the rest of the audience, charmed by its incessant cleverness. I rather liken it to a browser constantly refreshing itself, except each reload (or “reintroduction,” as it were) brings back the page in some refreshingly askew way.

A device I initially found too quirky but whose meaning felicitously manifested itself through the course of the film is Oliver’s constant use of “This is…” (such as “This is the dining room where people come and eat sometimes” or “This is the president” or “This is what happy people look like”). It is of course a means of introduction, which is fitting given that the movie’s title after all is “Beginners.” It’s a motif ingeniously spread throughout the film, i.e. when Oliver introduces his newly adopted Jack Russell terrier (inherited from his father) to his apartment, when young Oliver and his mother are viewing artwork at the museum, Hal’s schooling Oliver on symbols of gay pride, and Anna introducing her New York apartment to Oliver over the phone. In an aimless pomo work, this narrative device could have been throw-away, mere flash. But here, the constant introductions serve as meaningful reminders for Oliver to reintroduce himself to life and love. In Mike Mills’s charmingly hopeful film, the ending of the story is really just a beginning.

Actress Melanie Laurent with writer/director Mike Mills

The story is in many ways about life and death, and not just the literal kind. There are pretend shootings and pretend deaths (a game between young Oliver and his mother that he later plays with Anna), just like the pretend relationships in the film. Fittingly, the film starts with both an obituary and a personal ad. The former is written by Oliver after his father’s passing, and the latter is an artifact left behind by Hal evidencing that he didn’t give up on love. Hal’s death is in a way nothing in comparison to the “death” his entire married life had been. A sham, the marriage was built on a doomed premise that his wife could change one immutable aspect of Hal’s build:  his homosexuality. Ironically, Hal’s marriage, which would provide Oliver the template for sabotaging his own relationships, had as its foundation the couple trying genuinely (though naively) to make it work. But in such a case it was just not possible. Thankfully, no such impossibility presents itself as a stumbling block for Oliver’s love life. The son, improving upon the faults of the father (who had a late but still meaningful attempt at finally experiencing true love), has a clearer path towards happiness and love, should he accept it. The film gently nudges him on this path.

“Beginners,” written and directed by Mike Mills, is set for wide release June 3, 2011.

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