We meet Oliver as he walks through his recently-deceased father’s empty home. It’s quiet and ghostly, with echoes of a life once lived.
Oliver meets the world when he meets Anna at a costume party and thinks to himself, “someone flashy walks into your life, and you’re just going to fall for it.” He is at once a romantic and also very guarded.
Oliver has never been in a successful relationship, and he doesn’t think he can be loved. Part of this is from watching his parents’ loveless relationship as a child, as he tells his elderly father “I just don’t want to be like you and mom” when asked about his reasons for not dating.
Beginners is told through three time periods. The story unfolds in the present, with Oliver’s budding romance with Anna, a couple months after Oliver’s father, Hal, passes away.
The two time periods we flashback to are meant to demonstrate what and how Oliver has learned from his parents, and how this influences the way he lives his life.
We most often return to his father’s last couple years alive, after he comes out as gay following the death of Oliver’s mother. In this time we see how Hal embraces who he really is, unrestrained from the marriage contract he entered with his wife. Oliver observes that his mother traded in her Jewish badge, and his father traded in his gay badge.
The other flashbacks show Oliver as a child, spending time exclusively with his mother, very unhappy in her marriage. She instructs Oliver on how to correctly play dead and scream into a pillow for catharsis.
Oliver is silent as an adult, he ruminates over sadness and often recalls how his parents behaved and how it has programmed him into the sad, sad man he is today.
Shortly after Hal’s death, Oliver takes a walk with Hal’s Jack Russell terrier, Arthur. He proceeds to explain why Jack Russells exist, how they were created and what purpose they serve, implying that there is no real choice, what we believe and how we behave was determined for us, long ago.
Oliver begins to awaken from this pattern and line of thinking when he meets Anna.
They meet at the costume party. Oliver is dressed as Freud, and Anna can’t speak due to laryngitis. The first thing he says to her is “let’s start with your mother.”
They get along famously in a very quiet way. They spend the night together in Anna’s hotel. The first time they kiss, it feels like the millionth time.
They walk down the hall the next morning, hand in hand with Arthur the dog. Oliver and Anna are a very old-fashioned couple, like old souls who finally found one another.
Everything in this movie is old-fashioned: the music, the clothing, even the car Oliver drives. He’s a man concerned with the past, and we are told multiple times what life was like in the 30s and 50s as Oliver explains the differences in the world for his parents and for him. He ends this by saying “we felt a sadness our parents never had time to feel.”
So why is Oliver so sad?
He and Anna hit it off quickly. They spend time next to each other in her hotel room, going on walks, spray painting on walls. They’re right next to each other and yet there’s some part of Oliver, and Anna too, that is so far away. When Anna explains how her life as an actress, bouncing from place to place, can leave her feeling alone, Oliver replies, “you can stay in the same place and still finds ways to leave people.”
He’s learned this, like most everything in his life, from his parents. He’s learned this from simply observing them, much the same way Anna explains that she knows Oliver is sad the night of the costume party. He asks how she knows and she draws a picture of two eyes. The power is through simply looking.
Similarly, we are meant to identify with Oliver by looking through his perspective. We see his childhood memories framed through his point of view, as if we are the people watching. As he remembers how his father came out to him, we see Hal talking directly to the camera and us as the audience. We watch as Hal’s young boyfriend, Andy explains, directly to the camera, “since I came out to my father, he never speaks to me, that’s why I’ve been always attracted to older men.” Everyone is influenced in deep, impactful ways by their parents.
As Oliver spends time with Anna, he instinctively pulls away. It’s not until he remembers his father and his father’s relationship with Andy and himself that Oliver decides to commit to Anna.
The movie ends with Oliver flying across the country, from Los Angeles to New York, to see her. He knocks on her door and then calls her only for her to laugh, saying she’s back in Los Angeles. It’s in this moment, thousands of miles apart, that they are closest together. Anna gives Oliver a guided tour over the phone of her apartment. Just as he walks through his father’s empty home at the film’s beginning, now he walks through an empty apartment with tremors of a life about to be lived.
Beginners was written and directed by Mike Mills.