Things are starting to pick up a little bit, aren’t they? I greatly feared that 2011 would cinematically play out like the disappointing and mostly forgettable 2010. But, with indie darlings like Beginners, we’re starting to see a more justified semblance of hope.
Beginners tells the story of Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a lost little boy who just so happens to be nearing 40, who learns that his loving father, Hal (Christopher Plummer) not only has stage four lung cancer, but is also gay. Oliver, kind and aimless, tells us how he learned about these revelations through an amusing bit of narration, often comparing American life in the present year (2003) to other monumental time periods in his family’s history.
Beginners, you see, isn’t your standard, father-and-son -reconcile film. It’s a moving time capsule of one man’s personal journey for identity. Oliver’s relationship with his father in the final months of Hal’s life are in the past, and they are cross cut with Oliver’s relationship with Anna (Mélanie Laurent) a quiet young actress he’s just met.
As Oliver walks through his father’s now-empty home, he’s reminded of things. He’s reminded of his close relationship with his oddball mother (Mary Page Keller), his amusement at his father’s homosexual transformation (new clothes, new boyfriend, new music, new friends), his caring for his father at his most ill, and so on. He shares some of this with Anna, but mostly just pretends that his father’s death hasn’t affected him as badly as it has.
So really, Beginners is two films woven perfectly together. On one end, it’s the story of a son’s immediate acceptance of who his father really is, and his longing to find such self-acceptance in himself. On the other side, Beginners is a wondrous love story, which begins as uniquely as it progresses. Its love story is like (500) Days of Summer without the gimmick, like Annie Hall without the verbiage, or Before Sunrise and Before Sunset with a jumpy narrative.
I’ve been a fan of Ewan McGregor’s since he bolted onto the screen, dodging cops to the tune of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” in Trainspotting. And while I can’t say I’ve enjoyed some of his career choices, when he’s good, it’s enough to outweigh his bad. With that in mind, I’ve never seen him better than in Beginners. He plays Oliver as lost, but not regretful; as longing, but not lacking. Oliver knows how to shift his flaws, but he just can’t find the motivation to. It’s a great character arc, worked perfectly by McGregor.
Mélanie Laurent kicked some serious ass as Shosanna in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, but here, we’re privy to another side of her. A kind, gentle side with great insecurities. I imagine it was a risk for writer/director Mike Mills to cast Laurent here (her career could’ve easily been typecast as the blonde bitch who’s a force to be reckoned with), but thank God he did. Oliver isn’t perfect, and neither is Anna, but they certainly are perfect for each other. That’s a chemistry you don’t often see achieved between two actors.
At 83 years old, Christopher Plummer is at the top of his game. Coming off his only Oscar nomination (for 2009’s The Last Station), Plummer does absolute wonders in Beginners. As Hal, he gives many fascinating traits to a man who so desperately loves to live, but understands that his time is limited. Hal is loving, restrained, ill, confused, and, most importantly, tender to the needs of other.
Whether he’s Captain Von Trapp, or Mike Wallace, or Aristotle, or Christopher Newport, or Leo Tolstoy, Christopher Plummer has long been able to hit his mark and shake things up. I’ve seen him as good, but never better, than he is in Beginners. Give the man an Oscar.
As the title suggests, Beginners is a film about starting. Starting your new life, your new love; about taking the step to find out who you are and what you can do. It’s gentle, effortless and all-together wonderful. A-