Movie review: ‘Beginners,’ written and directed by Mike Mills, 105 minutes, rated R.
In Mike Mills’ “Beginners,” we find Oliver (Ewan McGregor), an antisocial shell of his former self (a Jack Russell Terrier is his primary companion), lingering in an emotional aftershock from three life-altering losses.
The first is the death of his mother (Mary Page Keller), the second is the loss of his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), after a battle with cancer. The third, however, is lost years. Oliver spent his entire life not really knowing his dad. Few people did.
The man Oliver calls pop – the straight-faced absent figure in his life – is merely a disguise.
The real Hal is gay. And he wants to be gay. Not just gay in theory, but truly gay.
You see, Hal grew up in the ’30s, as Oliver so kindly points out in one of his many voice overs. In those times, coming out was a guaranteed ticket to exile. In the public’s eye, it was a mental illness, and one that certainly wouldn’t be tolerated.
Because of this, Hal stayed in the closet until the age of 75, always aware that he was attracted to men.
In 2003, times have changed. Hal can come out of the closet, and he chooses to do so with great fervor. Despite stage 4 cancer – and that he’s a 75-year-old man new to gay culture – he finds a rejuvenated passion for life, unlike anything Oliver has seen before. Hal hits the clubs, discovers a new love for shopping and begins dressing more flamboyantly. He brings home a younger boyfriend named Andy (Goran Visnjic).
“You have it easy,” Hal says to his son after an unsuccessful outing to a gay club. But Oliver doesn’t have it easy.
The fractured relationship of his parents has left him with a sense that all relationships are destined for failure. He’s been serious with four women in his life, and he has let them all drift away.
Then he meets Anna (Melanie Laurent), and it’s love at first sight. That’s the easy part. What comes next, that’s the hard part.
For all of the sadness that comes with Oliver and Hal’s late-blooming relationship (particularly in the son’s flashbacks to his mother), there’s a comedic relief as Oliver begins to see his father for who he really is, not the persona that he’s spent years creating. With precious little time left, Hal loses his inhibition, becoming a social butterfly in the gay community. In this role, Christopher Plummer lights up the screen.
More than anything, Hal’s coming out offers both men a fresh beginning. There isn’t an ounce of bitterness in either, just acceptance. As the 75-year-old comes into his own, Oliver is left no option but to take a long look at his own life. In Oliver and Hal, we find one of the most endearing father-son relationships seen in cinema in years.
“Beginners” is quite possibly my favorite kind of movie. It perceives life the way I do. It’s neither an outright comedy or tragedy. Instead it bounces between the two, never fully committing.
And, when things do happen to get a little too heavy, there’s always an all-knowing Jack Russell terrier to turn to.
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