The marvelously heartfelt charmer ‘Beginners’ lives up to its fitting tagline
By Steven Foster
One of the best lines in the gem-perfect script by writer and director Mike Mills—and there are many—is uttered wordlessly by Arthur. Arthur is portrayed by the scene-stealing Jack Russell terrier, Cosmo. The line? “I hope this feeling never ends.”
And that’s pretty much how you’ll feel when you see the rapturous and engaging Beginners, a deftly nimble, hilarious, heartbreaking, and ultimately soul-stirring film. Based on Mills’ own life, Beginners thoughtfully and deliriously zips between past and present as Mills stand-in Oliver (Ewan McGregor, thankfully back to his independent roots) deals with the loss of his beloved mother (the spot-on Mary Page Keller) and, more recently, his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer, who is no doubt crafting his Oscar speech).
Four years after coming out immediately following his wife’s passing, the 75-year-old Hal dies as well. This synopsis gives nothing away, as each of these events is curiously and inventively tossed at you within the first three minutes. And when we flash back to Hal coming out of the closet, he lets loose with a libertine flair that is all personal ads, fireworks, rainbow flags, and gay-cause envelope-stuffing. This new honesty thaws a formerly icy relationship with his son so much so that when Hal succumbs to lung cancer, the barely anchored Oliver becomes tragically unmoored.
All of that changes, however, when Oliver meets Anna at a Halloween party, she in male drag, a pad-scribbling patient to Oliver’s costumed Freud. It’s a meet-cute to be sure, but the device is devoid of Hollywood insipidity. On the contrary, this trick—like the subtitled dog, the clip-art illustrations, the hopscotching timeline, and the scratchy LP soundtrack—is far from twee. Instead, they seem wildly original yet familiar all at the same time, much like the slipperiness of memory—that elusive specter and dominant theme in this lovely and rich film.
Anna is a stunning, blithe spirit, full of bohemian bonhomie and an actor’s keen insight. And while Anna (Mélanie Laurent, hitting more intoxicating notes than a fine French parfum) may be enough to bring the emotionally dead Oliver back to life, the question hovers ominously: is she so drawn to him because she is just as emotionally adrift as he?
As in his first effort, Thumbsucker, Mills has assembled a winning cast and, more importantly, draws out indelible performances from everyone, proving that he may be one of the best actor’s directors working today. And in a season programmed for Grand Guignol gestures, Mills’ delicately expressive touch is a summer wonder.
Props to Focus Features for ingenious counterprogramming, and here’s hoping Beginners gets the attention it deserves. After all, by the time you read this, you’ll have been Green Lanterned, Transformed, and Captain America’d to death. If so, slap a cape on Beginners. This is the real superhero at the box office this season.
Beginners is scheduled to hit Houston July 1 at Landmark River Oaks Theatre, 2009 West Gray, 713/866-8881.
Steven Foster is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.