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Dustin Putman

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Beginners  (2011)
2 Stars
Directed by Mike Mills.
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Mélanie Laurent, Goran Visnjic, Mary Page Keller, Kai Lennox, Keegan Boos, China Shavers, Melissa Tang, Lou Taylor Pucci.
2011 – 105 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for language and some sexual content).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, June 9, 2011.
Hal (Christopher Plummer) wed Georgia (Mary Page Keller) in 1955. They had a son, Oliver, ten years later. Hal was content with his life, but as a museum director he was often working late rather than at home with his family. He had known he was gay since the age of thirteen, but it was only with Georgia's passing after forty-four years of marriage that he finally felt like he could embrace this other side of himself. By this point, in 1999, he was seventy-five years old. Now a grown graphic artist with a series of failed relationships under his belt, Oliver (Ewan McGregor) was genuinely surprised by the news. But then, as Oliver tells his father at one point, he barely can remember him from back when he was a child. Hal got a new life, a new group of friends, and a much younger boyfriend Andy (Goran Visnjic). He also became closer to Oliver. Four years after finally coming out, Hal would succumb to cancer. It's never too late in one's life to embrace your true self, but, damn it, there also never seems to be enough time.

Written and directed by Mike Mills (2005's "Thumbsucker") with semi-autobiographical shades from his own life, "Beginners" is meaningful yet told with a light hand, touching yet a little undernourished. Shifting timelines—before and after Hal's death, with further flashbacks to Oliver's childhood and his lovely, free-speaking bond with his mom—compete for attention, and the narrative structure is not always seamless. Indeed, the material peeking into Hal's journey as an older "out" gay man and the subsequent relationship he builds with Oliver is close to wonderful. When Hal gets sick and his prognosis looks grim, he shields the bad news from everyone but his son while embracing his existence all the more. He throws parties and grows a large fruitful garden and buys as many books as possible. He also opts to rewrite the Bible, envisioning that Jesus died peacefully in his bed as an old man just as the morning sun was rising over the hills. When asked why he's changing history, Hal's answer is honest and to the point: "It was far too violent!"

The scenes focusing on Hal, played with calm, charming empathy by Christopher Plummer (2011's "Priest"), are affectingly realized, and it's comforting to see how he lives without regret and makes it known to Oliver that he would not have traded the years he spent with Georgia. This is only part of the story, however, as the other half—or maybe a little more than that—is dedicated to Oliver's romance with Anna (Mélanie Laurent), a down-to-earth French actress he meets at a costume party four months after Hal's passing. Oliver is in a sad-sack funk before this, bringing with him wherever he goes Arthur, his dad's Jack Russell terrier that he has since adopted. Anna and Oliver instantly connect, even with the initial handicap of Anna's laryngitis, but both are at a point where they are open but skeptical about what the future holds for them. They've experienced too many disappointments to quite believe what has genuinely formed between them: true love.

Ewan McGregor (2010's "The Ghost Writer") is incapable of giving a poor performance, or even a mediocre one, able to bring to each part a soulful quality that makes the viewer believe in and care about him. He underplays Oliver as he should—this is a guy with more going on in his head than he would ever dare speak—and is well worth following. As Anna, Mélanie Laurent (2009's "Inglourious Basterds") is tender and earnest, a young woman who is both thoughtful, caring, and wise beyond her years. What she isn't is satisfactorily developed by the screenplay, which more or less treats her as a means to an end rather than as a person with a three-dimensional past. Her main purpose in the plot is to act as a catalyst—a pretty and kind catalyst, but a catalyst all the same—to Oliver's discovery that hope does exists. Maybe he won't be alone all his life. Anna services this requirement in Oliver's character arc without getting very much meat of her own to bite into.

"Beginners" works best in the interludes where Oliver, in voiceover, ruminates about the lives he and those around him live as it relates to the hasty passage of time. His words are tough to take because they ring so true, and the glimpses into Oliver's far past are deepened by the exquisite work of underrated actress Mary Page Keller, building a full, original character as quirkily funny mother Georgia in just a handful of scenes. As for the interwoven Oliver/Hal and Oliver/Anna sections, both should have either been further developed or one of them should have been severely cut down to a minor side plot. As is, their emotional impact is lessened because both feel more like sketches than complete drawings. Adding a dog into the mix whose thoughts are revealed in subtitles is just plain baffling, like something out of a broad stoner comedy rather than the human drama it is. Nevertheless, the messages "Beginners" imparts are valid and succinct without growing maudlin or preachy. Don't hesitate in doing what you want to do and grabbing hold of the people who mean the most to you, director Mike Mills appears to be saying, because you'll never have that moment back.
© 2011 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman