June 23, 2011 at 3:03 pm EST | by Steve Fox
Stunted emotions


“Beginners” will stir your emotions.

Told in flashback, the script for the recently released film is loosely based on the story of the relationship between writer/director Mike Mills and his parents. In his sophomore directorial effort in feature films, Mills weaves the tale of Oliver (Ewan McGregor) and his new love Anna (Mélanie Laurent) with the tale of his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) coming out during his twilight years.

Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor in ‘Beginners.’ (Still courtesy of Focus Features)

It’s obvious from the start that this is a personal and real story. Mills does an extremely effective job in telling an emotional tale without treating the audience as if they are unable to relate. The result is a wonderful film about the complexity of life and interpersonal relationships.

After 44 years of marriage, Hal’s wife dies and he is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. After sharing the recent diagnosis with his son Oliver, Hal also announces that he will be living the remainder of his life fully out as a gay man. The result is a balancing of perspectives between father and son. We soon witness Hal enjoying his “gayness,” as opposed to what he describes as living “theoretically gay.” Hal places a personal ad and enjoys house music for the first time. He loves to shop and host theme parties with his growing circle of friends. He is indeed relishing in his new-found freedom and joy away from the coldness and sadness of an unemotional marriage.

Not yet sharing the wisdom of his father, it seems Oliver will need to catch up.

The story drives home how much our own personal relationships can be affected by the dynamics and connections that we have with our parents. As a young child, Oliver’s mother struggles with an emotionless marriage and encourages her son to confront frustration by going into his room and screaming out loud in order to bring about “catharsis.” While some may argue the power of a good yell, the scene is an effective way of illustrating what can result in a relationship based on secrets and poor communication. Her approach to managing her marriage was a sign of the times, yes, but the actions obviously carried on into her own son’s relationship.

Hal imparts periodic dating and personal advice to his son. The advice seems to fall on pessimistic ears. It’s clear Oliver never witnessed any sign of true love between his parents. The ensuing personal struggle for Oliver to embrace his own happiness is the story that makes up the majority of the film. Oliver is having a hard time being social and is focused on sadness as a concept.

Oliver meets a girl named Anna and we witness them both struggle through the start of the relationship. Whether we like it or not, the model that our parent’s provided is one that we so often draw from when managing our own relationships. In two particularly moving scenes, Anna and Oliver struggle with communicating and find themselves coping with the awkwardness through non-traditional means. The couple write on a pad due to a case of laryngitis and role-play over the phone while in the same hotel room.

They want to connect on a deeper level than their respective parents ever could.

Oliver narrates the story for us and moves the movie along at a nice pace. Drawing on historical references in gay America, the story’s poignancy is driven home as the audience is reminded at how far the gay movement has progressed in the last 50 years. Interestingly, there is a brief sequence where The Mattachine Society, an early gay rights group, is referenced. The Washington Chapter of the Society was instrumental in starting the Blade.

While the historical references are interesting and provide context for Hal’s unabashed excitement with his life out of the closet, the real power of this movies lies with the characters. The movie’s script is creative in bringing about character development and the audience experiences understanding and a closeness with each of the characters as the movie progresses.

Through the flashbacks, we continue to see Hal enjoying his final days. Perhaps fueled by the knowledge that his time is limited, Hal even pursues love with as equal abandon as shopping for the latest fashions in neckwear. He continues to surprise his son’s preconceived notions of his father by dating and eventually falling in love with a much younger man. Hal continues to demonstrate to his son how much he embraces and loves himself in his gayness. A heartwarming scene shows an exchange between Hal and his hospice nurse. After complementing the male nurse on his hair, the nurse brings out his mousse and helps Hal to do his hair in the same way, providing the movie with one of its most poignant scenes.

Despite all of the angst, there are sprinkles of comic relief. Oliver eventually adopts his father’s dog, Arthur. Challenging the audience’s ability to suspend its disbelief while enjoying the film, Mills gives the audience the ability to read the Arthur the dog’s thoughts through the use of subtitles. The audience sees Arthur telepathically communicate to Oliver in an effort to encourage him to progress in the relationship with Anna: “Tell her the darkness is about to drown us unless something drastic happens soon.”

“Beginners” is about new life and new love. It’s about embracing life no matter what stage you are in. The emotions can be daunting, but the thrill is in the process, not an end result.

“Beginners” is playing at Landmarks E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row Cinema.


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