What makes a good film? Forget the perfect structure that we’re taught makes for a great plot (you know, the “Put a man up in a tree, throw stones at him, and either take him down or let him starve to death” plot line…*) For me, a great film makes me do two things. It makes me feel, and it makes me think.
Mike Mills’ exquisitely crafted Beginners made me feel and think. I can’t remember the last time a single scene made me go from laughing to crying in a matter of seconds. Beginners, set in 2003, is about Oliver (Ewan MacGregor) whose father Hal (Christopher Plummer in the role that won him his first Academy Award at the age of 82) comes out as gay after Oliver’s mother passes away. Soon after, Hal is diagnosed with terminal cancer.
From the film’s premise I expected lots of laughs and tears, but what I did not expect was a brilliantly and subtly acted and directed exploration of how love, loss and fear affect the young and old. Oliver meets Anna (Inglorious Basterds’ Melanie Laurent), an actress, shortly after his father’s death, and their relationship is portrayed with relatable vulnerability. Yet this primary relationship is actually the weakest of all the relationships in the film – although Laurent’s understated performance is captivating, her character, who quirkily pulls Oliver out of his isolation and fear of commitment, occasionally veers on the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” trope. What I found more interesting was the way in which we discover how Oliver’s individual connection with his mother and father influences his new approach to love. We view the film through Oliver’s eyes and are both painfully and happily whisked through time as his snapshot memories with his parents are delicately unfolded. At times, Mills’ smooth and crisp filmmaking feels more like a melody than a story.
Both McGregor and Plummer give spectacular performances and Mr. Plummer’s much delayed Oscar is nothing but well deserved.
My only issue with the film was its ending. SPOILER ALERT! While I love how a film that ends with two people bravely choosing to plunge into the deep end and stick together looking at each other with that “So what do we do now?” quasi-cliffhanger evokes an incredibly realistic sense of the unknown that we face daily, this type of ending has been incredibly overused (see the endings of Garden State and 50/50).
Regardless, I highly recommend Beginners and I’d love to know what you think about it.