After director Mike Mills’ mother died, his father announced, at age seventy-five, that he was gay and now wanted to live a life of candour and verve. Sadly, his father died of cancer only five years later. Beginners is partly the autobiographical story of Mills, renamed Oliver and played by Ewan McGregor, and his relationship with his father, Hal (played beautifully by Christopher Plummer), recalled in flashbacks after his death. Then there is an entirely fictional story set in the film’s present: while Oliver tries to cope with his father’s death, he meets and falls for French actress Anna, played by Mélanie Laurent. By reflecting on the chances his father took towards the end of his life, Oliver realises that he must be willing to do the same if he is to grow up and find lasting love.
Variety magazine’s Peter Debruge said that Beginners is ‘the cinematic equivalent of Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius’. At first glance this seems like a fair comparison. Both novel and film are jammed with narrative and stylistic devices associated with postmodernist art: self-reflexivity, allusion, mixing of genres and mediums, and direct address of the reader/viewer. However, Eggers wrote HBWSG more than 10 years ago, at a time when these tropes didn’t feel so much like ‘tropes’ and still contained some novelty. Unfortunately for Beginners, it follows on from a long line of postmodernist films, and in no way is it as daring or innovative as HBWSG was when it was first published.
Mills seems to be trying to tick all the postmodern indie film boxes, and some of his influences are shockingly obvious. For instance, Oliver (like Mills) is an artist who designs album covers. His black and white drawings often fill the screen entirely, providing alternative, idiosyncratic representations of the events unfolding. Here, we can see the impact of director Michel Gondry and particularly his film The Science of Sleep (2006), where drawing and animation vividly reflected the childish innocence and pain of the main character’s unique worldview. But, while Beginners so obviously adopts this device, its use here fails to reveal anything interesting about Oliver’s subjectivity – his mind, it seems, is just a bit dull and monochromatic.
It is not all bad though; the core father-and-son story is quite wonderful. This is especially due to Christopher Plummer’s rounded performance. As Oliver’s out-and-proud gay father, Plummer is dignified, hilarious and warm. Goran Visnjic, who plays Andy, his much younger boyfriend, is also superb – and their relationship is presented as loving, complex and passionate. Unfortunately though, the more unique dynamic between Oliver, his father, and his father’s young boyfriend has to play second fiddle to the pedestrian romance between Oliver and Anna.
This main love story is wholly unsatisfying: their interactions are so performative that it is difficult for the viewer to be swept away in the burgeoning romance. When they meet at a costume party, for instance, Anna has laryngitis and thus communicates with Oliver by writing things in a notebook. Rather than speaking directly to one another, they talk in riddles, in metaphor or while pretending to be other people. By way of explaining her fragile relationship with her father, Anna pretends to be him on the phone while Oliver pretends to be her. Prevented from scratching beneath the surface, we fail to empathise with Oliver and Anna, and to care whether or not they stay together.
This kind of dialogue is presumably meant to reflect Oliver’s emotional immaturity, and Anna is an actress, so performing is what she does. But despite these justifications for the unnatural gravitas with which these characters interact, when it comes down to it, Mills has created romantic leads who are distractingly artificial and thus not particularly likeable or compelling. Ultimately, Beginners is a film where the snappy, affected dialogue is distancing, causing you to reflect that no one in the real world speaks like this – and if they did, people probably wouldn’t want to spend time with them, anyway.
Kate Harper studied cinema at the University of Melbourne and now works as a freelance writer.