Highly autobiographical films can be both a blessing and a curse. The
writer has extraordinary insight into and passion the subject and yet they
have no distance or discretion – what seems vital to them can seem trivial
to an audience.
Mills’ Beginners strays into the positive areas much more frequently
than the negative. In the film, the writer/director, best known for the
impressive indie Thumbsucker, shares his uniquely dysfunctional
American family, and in doing so gives us a fascinating look behind the
walls of a family’s life.
Mills’ parents were married – happily, by all accounts – for over 40 years.
Yet, after his mother died, his father came out – at age 75 – as a proud,
happy and active gay man. He lived the lifestyle for a few years before he
too passed away.
Mills told me in a recent interview that the idea for the movie came to him
when his father was dying of cancer. He was having a conversation with him
and had to ask why his father and mother had stayed together for so many
years if he was gay. His father assured him that he had always loved her.
Plus, they got married in the 1950s, when the homosexual lifestyle was much
more taboo. Therefore, the father explained to Mills that his mother had
taken off her Jewish badge and he had taken off his gay badge.
odd thing, Mills found, was that his father was more alive, involved and
happy in the last few years of his life – when he could finally be himself –
than he had ever been during his perfectly pleasant life as a husband and
Mills started writing a script on his relationship with his father during
those last years of his life a mere five months after his father’s death.
few years later, Beginners has arrived, and in many ways it is a
small masterpiece. It is melancholy and yet extremely funny, dour and yet
hopeful, quiet and yet explosively joyous.
on two intertwined threads. Both revolve around Oliver (Ewan McGregor), the
fictionalized version of the writer/director. Oliver is an artist who is
rather closed-off emotionally. The film shows Oliver learning to open up
and let love in through two separate life-changing occurrences. The first
is – as discussed earlier – dealing with the coming out and subsequent
illness of his father Hal, played with playful vigor and great joy by
Christopher Plummer. The other thread takes place six months after his
father’s death, when Oliver meets a free-spirited but similarly neurotic
French actress named Anna – a totally fictional character who is played with
sexy-but-bruised abandon by actress Mélanie Laurent, best known in the US
for her portrayal of Shoshanna in Quentin Tarentino’s Inglorious Basterds.
Actually, Oliver learns love in one other way, in and having little
conversations with his late father’s Jack Russell Terrier. Literally, the
dog’s thoughts are shown as subtitles. This kind of stunt could be painful
in less talented hands, but it turns out to be charming and rather funny.
Of course it doesn’t hurt that the dog was incredibly cute and acted like a
dog, not an acting dog. As it is, the coming to terms of man and animal are
just one more way that Oliver finally learns to embrace life.
These stories are weaved together seamlessly to create a sweet, touching and
most importantly an earned epiphany.
film begins and climaxes with a scene of the son setting off fireworks with
his father’s new friends to celebrate the fleeting brilliance of life. This
film also pulls off the same spectacular effect.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2011 PopEntertainment.com.
All rights reserved. Posted: June 3, 2011.