Beginners

Review by © Jane Freebury

While the studios compete for audiences, outdoing each other with bigger and noisier SFX extravaganzas, along comes a small film that really has something to say, and does it simply with an excellent script, inventive direction and sensitive performances. It’s made by a relative beginner, US writer-director Mike Mills, a second-time feature filmmaker with a modest track record in short film.

It’s not hard to see how mainstream actors would have been drawn to the project. Big names that they are, Mélanie Laurent, Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor somehow they don’t swamp the film either, which is interesting. It is one of McGregor’s best performances too.

Loosely autobiographical, with McGregor as the main character Oliver, a 38-year-old graphic artist, it explores the personal problems that can be handed down to children when it turns out their parents weren’t who they thought they were.

It’s not because father and son were so close, but because the lie that Oliver suspected his parents were living was exposed when his father came out at 75, when his wife (Oliver’s mum) dies, throwing himself into a new life as a gay man. Hal (Plummer) joins Gay Pride, goes clubbing and begins a relationship with a younger man about the same age as his own son. And then he dies of cancer. It’s a quite a lot for Oliver, his parent’s only child, to absorb.

A few months after the funeral, Oliver is understandably still pretty glum but is persuaded to go to a ‘come as your favourite character’ party. Hiding behind a sage grey beard and puffing on a pipe, he encounters a gamin figure in mismatching baggy clothes, who insists she cannot speak. Sigmund Freud meets Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp. It is the start of his romance with Anna (Laurent), a French actress looking for work.

Up till that point, Oliver has been spending too much of his time with the family dog Arthur, a Jack Russell genuinely tuned in him. Arthur knows instinctively that Oliver needs company ‘While I understand up to 150 words, I don’t talk’ and when Anna is on the scene he asks ‘Are we getting married yet?’ But he isn’t a dog that talks. His dialogue is delivered in subtitles—another inventive touch from Mills.

With idiosyncratic touches like these and an episodic structure into which memories intrude as Oliver tries to live in the present, a film might falter. Long and detailed montage sequences that explore the tone of the times when his parents were young could, interesting as they are, interrupt the flow.

However, Beginners works a treat. Deftly drawn and sympathetically told, it is a terrific inventive small film with a light touch and good humour to carry the day.

In a capsule: After his father dies just a few years after coming out as a gay man, a graphic artist is left with rather a lot to work through. This highly inventive piece has a light touch, warmth and good humour to carry the day.

4 stars