Beginners – Review


Lisa Dreher


Written and directed by American filmmaker Mike Mills, Beginners is sweet and humble in its exploration of sadness and acceptance across generational attitudes. It gently plays on your emotions without ringing and straining them out for the sake of being the artistic drama that it is.

The soft lighting and muted colors in this romantic comedy-drama play into the portrayal of Oliver, a soft-spoken, forty-something graphic artist. The film’s setting is actually two periods of time. One in 2003, in which his father, Hal, played by Christopher Plummer, tells him he is actually gay and dying of cancer, and so in this time Oliver reconciles with his newly comfortable, happy father.

The film’s present is in 2010, after Oliver’s father has passed away, and in this time he tries a relationship with the lovely French actress Anna, played by Melanie Laurent. He also adopts Arthur, Hal’s wire-haired, Jack Russell Terrier who provides Oliver company and assurance through subtitles of his witty responses that we appreciate ourselves.

It is not at all about Oliver coming to terms with the fact that his father is gay, but instead how happiness and love comes in the form of different things for different people. The movie effectively executes this when he realizes how sad both his parents were because of the time and place they decided to be together.

Taking a quirky but melancholy turn, there is a scene where Oliver narrates while pictures from 1955 and 2003 switch back and forth, comparing how the stars and the presidents looked. In 1955 his parents married, and in 1955 there was much prejudice and hatred towards homosexuals, and praise for women who bound themselves to the house and their husbands.

Throughout the movie memories of his mother and father seem now full of feigned affection, and Oliver comes to realize how their bond was more out of necessity than passion. 2003 Hal feels comfortable embracing his true self and in the process introduces Oliver to his younger boyfriend, Andy. Oliver feels depressed realizing how distant his parents were from each other, but he shares the joy Hal has in his loving, mutual relationship with Andy.

Going forward to 2010, Oliver is a little lost and gloomy. When Arthur barks whenever he tries to leave the house, he decides to take him along knowing how it hurts to be lonely. After that they are at a dog park, and Oliver encourages Arthur to join ‘his kind.’

The dog’s cute, content face looks at Oliver while he explains to him the history of how Jack Russell Terriers were natural hunting dogs, and how people have transformed them into gentle, adorable housepets. Mills does not relish in sappy, profound meanings of life to give life to his movie, but subtly hints at how people are the happiest when they embrace their natural tendencies, such as when Hal would dress as he wanted to and sleep contently next to Andy without shame.

The relationship between Oliver and Anna starts with a spark, not like the dull indifference that brings Oliver’s parents together. Anna charms us with her quiet demeanor and eccentric views voiced with a delicate French accent. Because of her constant traveling, she and Oliver struggle to find a common ground for a relationship that’s stable and realistic.

With a father that calls her almost every night who weighs her down with the possibility of suicide, Anna feels trapped. She becomes overwhelmed with her father’s calls and Oliver’s loss of a father and a real family built on love and not societal expectations, and so their relationship is a loving but fragile one.

Spray-painted clever statements of ‘historical consciousness’ on buildings, fireworks, art museums, and a soundtrack of jazz elements and grainy, old 20’s music like that in Woody Allen’s films gives the film a sweet, smart touch that warms your heart.