Evidently this is a really personal story on the end of Mike Mills and I can only imagine the sort of poignancy it would carry towards his end but no matter how much I try, I can’t find myself connecting with it to the degree I hope for. There’s a degree to which I wish I could find myself loving Beginners to, based upon my own expectations after the wonderful 20th Century Women, but in itself I just find a work too difficult especially where it shouldn’t be. A rewatch that came after having fallen head over heels for 20th Century Women had me hoping that I would find myself loving Mike Mills’s Beginners on the count that it tells of something touching at this point of one’s life, but unfortunately the attachment feels suffocated at its very worst, and it’s a prominent feeling that I come across with these quirky indie films.
Read any synopsis for Beginners and one would already find themselves in for something that could make for a touching concept: Ewan McGregor plays a man named Oliver, as he reflects upon past events that have changed his life regarding his father after death. His father, played by Christopher Plummer, is suffering from terminal cancer and after many years of being closeted, finally comes out as gay. Loosely based on the real-life coming out of Mills’s own father five years before his own death, this is a story filled to the brim with personal touches because of the poignancy coming behind a story of a man’s discovery of their own identity at this point of their life, but it feels marred by the film that surrounds it, leaving only half of the intended emotional impact intact while the other half is a perfect summary of what shouldn’t have been especially considering the sort of film it is.
What frustrates me so much about the way Mike Mills presents for Beginners is the fact that it embodies the sorts of quirks that the most common American indie film would carry and ultimately, they distract from what already was a touching story about self-discovery. It’s one thing to admire how touching the film’s concept is, pointing towards the fact that Plummer’s character has only come out during his old age, but the structuring is so alienating and many of the film’s reaches at quirks take away from this. On one hand there comes the flashbacks and narration by McGregor which try to help the film in establishing a setting, but it comes off as distracting from the more moving elements of the story – then come the actions of Ewan McGregor’s character, which try to create a charm in itself but embody in part an annoying habit, one that always gets to me being his chats with his own dog together with having the dog being given his own subtitles.
That’s not to say the film is unable to create a proper dramatic atmosphere all across the board but the film is at its best when it’s about the father rather than Oliver himself because his character isn’t particularly as fleshed out as well as he should be amidst all the quirks he carries. While these bits carry their charm, McGregor only finds the best rising from his character and his performance when he’s together with someone else, whether it be Christopher Plummer or Mélanie Laurent – for they help in driving a story arc even further down to where it should be, as opposed to staying within a land full of occasionally aggravating quirks, together with a notion that his storyline feels inconsequential. Had the film been told from the perspective of the father maybe a greater connection between me and what the film is saying can be found because there was rarely a thing about McGregor’s perspective that rang as resonant other than what he feels upon hearing the big news.
At its best, however, Beginners can be extremely heartbreaking and it would be a result from how Mike Mills observes the arc of Christopher Plummer’s character. Plummer, who finds a great sense of freedom in this performance, is the standout amongst the whole cast because it’s easy to empathize with the struggles he had faced his life regarding his identity. What I wanted more out of Beginners was an insight regarding how Hal had kept the fact he was a gay man closeted the whole time and how it had affected his life during his youth, and these moments are only glossed over in flashbacks considering the fact the film is about Oliver. When Mills allows Plummer to express only the very most out of what he is facing at this point of his life, the resonance can be felt and it makes for a heartbreaking arc. If only Beginners were more of this, something greater could have risen.
Part of Beginners is a heartbreaking story about the discovery of oneself and the other part just bogs itself down to the typical indie movie clichés whether it be the self-loathing protagonist or the most common quirks. The problem with Beginners is that this blend doesn’t work so well, but if something at least helped in making the film a worthwhile experience, there comes Christopher Plummer’s dedicated performance as Hal for his own sections make for an incredibly heartbreaking story within itself. McGregor and Laurent aren’t particularly bad with what they have, but their moments distract from what I could imagine Mike Mills had envisioned the film to be considering the incredibly heartfelt and personal touches he adds to the story. I simply would have wanted more to hear about the father inside of his pastime and within his new life because that was the story that grabbed me most.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Focus Features.
Directed by Mike Mills
Screenplay by Mike Mills
Produced by Leslie Urdang, Dean Vanech, Miranda de Pencier, Lars Knudsen, Jay Van Hoy
Starring Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Mélanie Laurent, Goran Višnjić
Release Year: 2010
Running Time: 104 minutes