In Beginners, the emotionally safe world of an introverted artist comes crashing down when his elderly father announces that he's gay and has terminal cancer. In this funny, moving, partly autobiographical film, writer-director Mike Mills shows in heart-warming and entertaining fashion the beautiful life we can have when we stop lying to others out of fear and open up to the real possibilities of love.
Oliver, played by Ewan McGregor in one of his most charismatic performances, is a working artist who endures a lonely but emotionally safe existence after a lifetime of self-sabotaging every chance for love. His art is his only outlet for emotional expression.
Oliver's father, Hal, played by veteran actor Christopher Plummer, knocks Oliver out of his safe zone one day by informing him that he has terminal cancer. Not only that, but he is gay, has had a secret male lover for some time, and he has always been gay. This is shocking news to Oliver, who until now has never questioned his father's long years of marriage with his deceased mother.
In flashbacks to childhood moments with his mother (Mary Page Keller), Oliver begins to really see her for the first time and gradually begins to understand that he has become his mother's son, trapped by his own choices in an emotional cocoon devoid of true intimacy.
As heavy as all of this sounds, I can assure you that I did not shed a tear the entire film. This movie is anything but a downer. It is a bittersweet celebration of life that will make you laugh often and entertain you in ways that you have never seen before. Moments of heavy emotional revelation are intertwined with humor as if Mills is telling us, "see, life's not so bad after all."
During one humorous sequence, Oliver's friend pries him out of his home to attend a costume party. Oliver puts together a costume from things on hand and arrives at the character of Sigmund Freud. During the party, Oliver, who is not one to talk much anyway, finds himself besieged by people intent on divulging their fears and insecurities as if he were a real psychoanalyst. On the up side this allows him to meet Anna, played by French actress Melanie Laurent, who is determined to capture his heart.
Ewan McGregor and Melanie Laurent
People seem to hit rock bottom before they will change the things that give them so much pain, and Hal's shocking revelations do that for Oliver. He pushes himself out of his comfort zone to achieve real love with Anna, even though the path is rocky for both of them.
Oliver is not the type of person who shares much with others, which can be an insurmountable obstacle for filmmakers seeking to develop audience connection with the character. Those who struggle with that challenge most often use external conflict, artificially creating scenes that force action from the character based on overcoming obstacles. That contrived approach by itself would surely have failed here.
Instead Mills takes us into Oliver's world in two novel ways. First, Oliver's art comes to life in quick animated sequences, giving us a window into what's going on inside his heart and mind. Second, Oliver talks to his dog, Arthur, with Arthur's thoughts expressed in subtitle. This latter device works spectacularly well. It allows Oliver to express his innermost feelings without excessive reliance on voice-over, and to do so in a way that infuses the scenes with a terrific dose of humor.
Ewan McGregor with Cosmo
By the way, Cosmo, the canine actor who plays Arthur in the film, does such a fantastic job of it that he is already achieving rock star status. Initial audience response to Cosmo has been so great that much of the film's promotion is now centered on him. Mills and the actors talk about working with Cosmo in this video on the film's official site.
This is only Mills' second feature film, but it is such a masterpiece of entertainment and effective storytelling, that I hope we will see his work again soon. Beginners tells us that sure, life is hard, but it all works out for the best if we stay true to ourselves and handle life's obstacles with a healthy dose of humor.