Ewan McGregor, Mélanie Laurent, Christopher Plummer, Goran Visnjic, Kai Lennox, Mary Page Keller, Keegan Boos
R for language and some sexual content
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Learning to walk again after a serious injury is a difficult task. Emotional trauma can be even more devastating. Rebuilding your life after the passing of one's parent, especially when that companionship became a defining element of your life for so long is one of the important examinations in Mike Mills' second feature Beginners.
Shortly after the death of his wife, Hal Fields (Christopher Plummer) admits to his son that he is gay. Oliver (Ewan McGregor) isn't sure how to take the news as his parents were happily married for several years, but somehow knowing that his mother was ok with who Hal was makes it easier to accept. As the film begins, Hal is dead and Oliver is still coping with that loss. Taking inspiration from his father's late-in-life renewed lease, Oliver gets involved in all manners of civic actiities, embracing his gay lifestyle and even meeting and falling in love with another man, Oliver decides to pursue a relationship with a woman he meets at a friends party whose bout of laryingitis prevents her from communicating with him other than through a series of hand gestures that he enthusiastically translates. Anna (Mélanie Laurent) is an affable young woman whose conflict with her father makes it difficult for her to accept and conduct a serious relationship with another man, hammering a wedge into their blossoming relationship.
Mills' pensive screenplay examines the emotional baggage each of us carries around with us. Abandonment issues, emotional abuse and rediscovering oneself are all central themes to his film and make for a compelling, if truncated feature. Helping him convey his complex ideas are an able cast of gifted actors lead by the charming, self-effacing McGregor. As Oliver, his trepidation about love and inability to understand how to commit to another human being is informed by his own father's sudden mode shift. Yet, Hal's insistence that his age only enables him to better experience the joys of life after decades of struggle, ennui and complacency. McGregor may not be able to stand up to the acting prowess of his legendary onscreen fatehr, but his more than ably supports his own storyline, allowing the audience to imprint on him their own lives and trepidations.
Although Laurent's thin characterization may be more a product of the screenplay than her own talent. Anna embodies the happiness, sorrow, frustration and aggravation of a number of different types of relationships conveniently rolled into a single character. Through this broad exemplifcation, Mills permits the audience to find any issue they've had with a significant other and project that onto Laurent's Anna. Laurent has a natural, unassuming style that makes this type of catch-all character work effectively.
Were Plummer not such an engaging and enthusiastic part of the film, it might be easy to accuse him of showboating. Hal is such an important part of Oliver's development that his constant presence is entirely fitting the story. It's Plummer's talent that makes the film such an easy sell. Plummer has always had a friendly, accessible air to his performances, even when portraying unlikable fiends. Here, he captures a lifetime's worth of joy and excitement in the short span of the film. His presence is felt whether he's onscreen or not, for Oliver's leaps toward normalcy are directly influenced by the successful relationship he has with his father.
Stylistically, Beginners isn't a particularly exciting effort. Of all the technical merits of the film, the only one that stands out particularly is that of editor Olivier Bugge Coutte who juggles the complexities of the time-skipping format with ease, its effortless quality demonstrating the expertise of a journeyman in the field.
Hal isn't your typical parent, nor should he be. That discrepancy might make it difficult for some audiences to identify with the film, but that will be of no fault of Plummer and may be more deeply rooted in a particular viewer's inability to find a gay character sympathetic. Plummer easily handles that role and might even convince a few doubters that their view of such thigns may be out of date. Beginners isn't a movie about gender roles or sexual identity. It's about the challenges of learning to fly again when a broken wing is not yet mended, but the soul is ready to soar.
August 16, 2012