I will watch anything with Ewan McGregor in it, really, and, from now on, I will watch any film writer-director Mike Mills (Thumbsucker) makes.
With Beginners, Mills tells a deeply personal story that’s loosely based on his own experience and tells the story of Oliver (McGregor), a thirtysomething man whose father, Hal (Christopher Plummer) comes out to him in the twilight of his life, at age 75, following the death of his wife of more than four decades.
I got to talk to Mills a long while ago about making the film, and the story, and the wonderful, intimate feel his cast, which also includes Inglourious Basterds star Mélanie Laurent as Anna, the object of Oliver’s affection, and an adorable Jack Russell named Cosmo who serves as Oliver’s proxy (I’ll explain).
Beginners, I should start by telling ya, unfolds in non-chronological flashbacks as seen from Oliver’s perspective.
It’s all memories of his parents growing up...of their unusual relationship...of his mother’s simmering resentment and his father’s being-there-but-not-really-because-he-was-hiding-som’in’-ness...of her death...of Hal’s revelation of his true sexual identity and awakening to a life he had put on the back burner...and of his terminal diagnosis and his eventual death.
The film grapples with profound sadness and grief, and explores the decisions people make and why they make them and how they deal with them and how they...live with them.
At the same time that we look into the past with Oliver we see him in the present, in his struggle to make sense of it all and how it really has affected him, as he, much like his newbie father, begins to open up to the next big chapter in his life.
Up until now, he’s been a son, a caretaker to both his parents in many a different level, but now that he finally is own his own, left only with Hal’s beloved pooch Arthur, Oliver really can become his own man.
Love – or the possibility of love – gets him there, but not without frightening him a bit first.
The film, Mills told me, is about people trying to figure out who they are, and how they do so through bravery and hope and humor and laughs and tears and everything in between. You must see this film because he gets to tell this story in a way that’s very special.
“I loved making the movie,” he said, “because it got me to ask very strange questions. Writing it I got to thinking what if my parents hadn’t made the compromises they made [Mills’s father sorta gave up being gay while his mother sorta gave up being Jewish, and they married because “it’s what people did back then”] – I wouldn’t be here. Who’s to say that didn’t make them happy because they were happy together.”
You definitely get that sense from the film, and that there shouldn’t be any judgment and that there isn’t any from his part, just understanding.
Honest humor, Mills told me, was key to keeping the story real.
“Christopher told me he liked that Hal, that my dad had wit,” he said.
Granted, not everything in Beginners is as is in real life.
The woman for whom Oliver falls, Anna, is a free-spirited, damaged-just-like-Oliver-in-way French actress on screen, but she is not the filmmaker Miranda July, to whom Mills is married. And he doesn’t have a dog that talks back to him via subtitles, either.
“Anna is not my wife, and Arthur talking is just Oliver talking,” he said of the oft-abused film quirk. “I talk to my dog constantly, and I talk back to myself. Animals are so mysterious...they represent the otherness, the unknown.”
What is known to anyone who goes to the movies is the caliber of talent that Mills had to work with. McGregor and Plummer, especially, are so subtle and yet, so commanding. They draw you in so completely that the latter is particularly cruel because he delivers a fully realized man so full of life with so little time to live you don’t want accept his eventual fate and the pain it causes his son.
It’s a pain that morphs into joy, though, after we all accept that he wouldn’t have had it any other way. And that, after all, is all any of us can hope for, right? That we do the best and the most of life.
My Rating ****
Photo: Focus Features.