Beginners is another confused little love story filled with male anxiety, partial adolescence, emotional hang-ups, whimsy, and quirk. It has its own sort of manic pixie dream girl in the form of Melanie Laurent. It has typical indie-film melodrama packaged with aging relatives and cancer cells. There's a Jack Russell terrier that plays a critical character role. Yes, it's rather twee. If you add up the elements, it should be too twee to function outside of the dorm rooms of girls wearing floral print summer dresses in the dead of winter. Thankfully, though, it is not (500) Days of Summer. The characters, the organizational structure, and the simple guilelessness of what would otherwise be entitled melancholia see to that. All that's too twee is rounded out with the echoes left by our families, the marks made by depression, and some smart performances by a trio of talented actors. Beginners transcends its genetic makeup to become a film not solely for those post-ironic hipsters and adolescents in love with being in love, but for humans struggling to maintain that love and find themselves worthy of it. Yet, it's more than that. What marks this film apart from vapid romances and its too precious brethren are the familial aspects. Beginners is essentially about the constant renewal of life, about it never being too late, but also about the impressions made on us by our families and our societies.
Via fluid temporality, Beginners is the story of Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a graphic designer in his late 30's who is reluctantly falling for a girl at the same time he's grappling with the death of his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer). We see Oliver's relationship with a pretty, struggling French actress named Anna (Laurent) blossom as it's interlaced with memories and flashbacks of Hal's late in life personal renaissance as an out and proud gay man (something he was not able to indulge thru decades of marriage). The story is a semi-autobiographical one for director Mike Mills (Thumbsucker), and its sensitivity to the subject matter shows. Plummer plays gay with a spectacular vibrance. His joie de vivre is the sort that seems natural after a lifetime of living imprisoned, and he gleefully adopts the trappings of a lifestyle long lusted over in a way that's infectiously endearing. Even as he suffers from an untreatable cancer, he can't be bothered not to live. Hal takes a young lover, joins every club he can, reads and writes and dances and leaves Oliver in a sort of self-conscious shock. He's not living this way. He's too hung up on what this all meant for his mother, on her death, and on the way his dying dad has more life than he does.
Plummer has grabbed quite a bit of press for his performance, but again (just as with I Love You Philip Morris), Ewan McGregor is doing quite a bit of the work here. McGregor is faced with the daunting task of pulling off a performance in all the stages of grief and uncertainty. He wants to be happy, but he's sad. He wants to escape his sadness, but he doesn't know how. He's adorable, but he doesn't know it. He's the straight man, the protagonist, and (unfortunately for him) the least interesting of the larger than life personalities he's surrounded with. It's a tough task, but McGregor's Oliver is nuanced and real, not some Joseph Gordon-Levitt archetype. What he knows is that he's not comfortable, that he worries too much (against reason) about the state of his parents' marriage, and that in some ways he never quite grew into a successful adult...but maybe that's because he spent so much of his youth trying to be prematurely wise and stable for his eccentric, unhappy mother. McGregor handles Oliver with care, we read his uncertainty in his eyes even as his mouth says something else. He's a bit of a sad sack, which leads him at times to be a bit of an accidental asshole, but there's a glimmer of optimism that he keeps hidden, and we're given enough understanding of his character through those flashbacks and interactions to know that its for his own protection. We don't need an explanation, we have all the evidence we need to draw our own conclusions.
A great mechanism here, which Mills pulls off amazingly well, is the relationship of both father and son with a Jack Russell terrier named Arthur. You'd think an overly anthropomorphized dog with subtitled thoughts might have no place in a movie for adults, but Arthur is given an insight that adds humor to the film's darkest moments, and the bond he shares with his keepers is played to effectively mine their most sympathetic qualities. He bears witness to the ways Oliver is his father's son, and the successes and failures of the people who surround them as a unit. I found reason to love each of the characters and each of their stories while appreciating that their charms and drawbacks were, while laced with that dangerous element: whimsy, never destroyed by too much sentimentality or sap.