21 June 2011

Mills’ ‘Beginners,’ or a Father’s Pride

Father and son: Plummer and McGregor

At least by dint of timing, I am probably the ideal audience for Mike Mills’ new film, Beginners: I saw the picture during Pride Week, the day after Father’s Day, shortly after returning from a visit with my own dad. The movie concerns the relationship between Oliver (Ewan McGregor) and his father (Christopher Plummer), who comes out as a gay man to his son toward the end of his life, and it provoked a long meditation on my part: what defines a father’s happiness? Was my own dad ever truly happy? What sacrifices did he make, in order to keep our family going?

Dad is unlikely ever to say, at this point, but so far as I know, he doesn’t have any coming-out bombshells to deliver. I do know a couple of men of his generation who did make choices similar to those that Plummer’s character (based on Mike Mills’ father) makes, and especially during Pride Week these men are, like it or not, the sort who make younger guys say, “Wow, I’m glad I’m part of my own generation, and not theirs.” We have options that our forebears did not.

Mélanie Laurent and Ewan McGregor

Not only because he cast the excellent French actress Mélanie Laurent as Anna, Oliver’s love interest, Miller has created what feels like a Los Angeles version of a French art film. He is interested in memory and reality, and in relationships, on a minutely detailed level. Thus we focus on a small group of complex individuals, we see their scenes play out in different ways, in a not-entirely linear structure, sometimes relying on still photos (almost like a documentary) and drawings. And, at least in my case, we surrender to solipsism of the most satisfying sort.

The movie’s greatest flaw is that Mills gives us dialogue, in the form of subtitles, from the father’s pet, a Jack Russell terrier. Surely there was another way to depict the sense of communication between Oliver and the dog that arises after the old man dies — but the gimmick won’t bother you unless you let it.

Somewhere in his wicked, miserable past,
he must have done something good.

There’s plenty of other material to hold your interest, and the performances are excellent. Plummer walks off with the picture: you can almost taste the old man’s pleasure as he creeps out of the closet in which he’s hidden all these years. He allows himself to live, even as he dies of cancer. McGregor’s Oliver is still walled-off, but gradually he, too, emerges, and it’s a measure of his skill as an actor that, even when he’s glum, he’s sympathetic and interesting to watch. You never wonder why Anna would fall for him.

Laurent is given a bad dye job, but her luminosity shines through, and she plays with a restraint that prevents her character from turning into what is now a recognized cinematic type, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. (She’s only a little pixieish and not at all manic, even when she’s roller-skating like Eloise in a hotel corridor.) As Oliver’s mother, Mary Page Keller is spectacularly good, channeling a number of 1970s icons (notably Paula Prentiss) yet creating something fresh and original.

Mélanie Laurent

I’m reluctant to say much more, because it’s such a small, graceful movie that too many words might capsize it; much of the pleasure lies in discovering it for yourself.

1 comment:

Anne said...

'I’m reluctant to say much more, because it’s such a small, graceful movie that too many words might capsize it; much of the pleasure lies in discovering it for yourself.'

Beautiful, WVM, beautiful. A phrase that sums up a lovely, modest world-view as well as a sensitive film review.