Review: “Beginners” (****½)

Ewan McGregor, Melanie Laurent, and this adorable Jack Russell Terrier
star in “Beginners”

If heartstrings were things to be actually played, mine would be in perfect harmony. “Beginners” is a film where, upon reflection now while writing this, I can’t help but smile and hug myself. It’s a gorgeous story that so seamlessly elevates storytelling to a new level of honesty, hilarity and tragedy.

I feel it fair to mention that this is a film I’ve seen four times, and the superb, though often misspelled 95-paged screenplay is a lovely piece of work with which I’ve now read twice. I’ve read Mike Mills reviews and interviews and commentary on this film; it’s a problem for me that when I love something, I nearly smother it to death. I choke every last breath out of the thing for two reason I think: one, for the pure and honest sake of information; and two, to prove I love it the most. And with “Beginners,” I’ve upturned every rock, looked under every pebble, read the tweets, explored the blogs, smiled at the reviews; I’ve discovered and read and digested nearly everything you can on this movie, and I love it no less for having done so. The only thing left for me to do is write about it, which brings us to now.

“Beginners” is story that begins and ends with Hal (the ever-enigmatic Christopher Plummer), an affably buoyant and charismatic character recently diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. When his wife, Georgia, dies from cancer after nearly four decades of marriage a couple months prior to this diagnosis, Hal liberates himself as a gay man. This part of the story is derivative of Mill’s real life; Mill’s father, after the passing of his mother, came out as a gay man ready and eager to live a vibrant and open life.

Though Hal informs the film’s timeline, at the heart of it, this story is really about Oliver (Ewan McGregor). Everywhere he goes, Oliver carries with him this very grave and serious sense of purpose. The entire film is Oliver attempting to reconcile what he thought was a happy marriage between his parents and what that now means for him. Because “Beginners” is a non-linear story, we, as viewers, are gifted with Oliver as both the son of a newly-outed father and as the orphan in the recent aftermath of his father’s death.

Oliver openly and plainly struggles with his father’s new persona; he struggles with the idea that Hal is only now becoming who he is, that he’s hidden and shelled himself for so long. And after Hal dies, Oliver struggles to maintain a place in his very overwhelming world. He’s ever fearful of making an irreversible commitment, and as a consequence remains unattached to everyone. The movie-defining line comes when Oliver admits: “You can stay in the same place and still find ways to leave people.”

And then comes Anna (Melanie Laurent). The woman who affords Oliver a goofy humor and a chance at happiness. She’s beautiful and wily and has a spring-like charm, but she has her share of jagged baggage. Together Oliver and Anna share tinderbox chemistry; they love openly and talk honestly about what hurts. They’re vulnerable and lovely and authentic and mesmerizing on the screen.

And we can’t forget Arthur, the sage, telepathic Jack Russell Terrier who has his very own subtitles; even he enhances the film’s deliciously whimsical and unconventional aesthetic. The narrated slideshows offer perspective and insight into why our characters are the way they are, why they’ve evolved into the people they are. These narrated sequences, they’re lovely and candid and enliven the themes of love and tragedy without being overwhelming or cumbersome. It’s a funny film, though, too. Not lightly funny, although sometimes we do get these blinding bursts of lightness. It’s a hard comedy that often times isn’t very funny; it’s steeped and syruped in sadness and loss, while somehow still remaining achingly thoughtful and endearing.

4.5 out of 5 stars.

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