Beginners (2010)

Directed by Mike Mills

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I can’t write objectively about Beginners because it is probably, presently my favorite film of all time.  It’s a lullaby, a soft breeze, the first sip of coffee, the cords of a familiar song, a towel after a dip in the ocean, and it is that moment you realize your car, which was parked there for more than two hours, didn’t receive a parking ticket.

I return to Beginners not because it is particularly funny or dramatic but because it is reassuring.  The movie, which I re-watched for maybe the 4th time, did prove to be a little funnier and a little more dramatic this time around, though those were pleasant surprises.  I returned to it the same reason you sometimes take the longer, more scenic route home.

The film is heavy-hearted and sensitive.  To some it may be self-indulgent, self-righteous and cheesy.  It’s the story of a 38 year old handsome man with a cool, hip job in a cool, hip area of Los Angeles deciding it’s okay to fall in love with a beautiful French girl.  It’s a story about a man who has a lot going for him in life but who won’t or can’t accept that.  He gets in his own way, dwells in a self-assigned misery, and by the end he learns to get out of his own way.

But I find this incredibly relatable.  Beginners doesn’t tackle socioeconomic issues or discussions of race, gender etc.  It’s a story about learning to start again, teaching an old dog new tricks.  It’s a story with a sad protagonist, but it’s a movie that has a grasp of the bigger picture.

Mike Mills’ movie bounces between three time periods and often calls attention to the differences in these time periods.  He doesn’t just show us Oliver (Ewan McGregor)  as a child in the early 70s and adult in 2003 but rather he makes us feel the generational differences by highlighting various imagery and political movements of the time.

The point is to show how good ‘we’ have it now while maintaining that certain problems, like struggling to be happy, remain.  The line which stands out to me most is when Oliver says, “our good fortune allowed us to feel a sadness that our parents didn’t have time for.”

Why does affluence of varying degrees seem to breed dissatisfaction?  The more our problems are taken care of, the more we have time to feel miserable.  This has nothing to do with grand questions of life and our place in the world but less altruistic ideas of melancholy.  There is no good reason to feel such a way, but there it is nonetheless.

The more I think about this movie, the more I think it says about me.  It speaks both to my vanity and insecurity.  I would love to be someone like Oliver, himself a caring, handsome artist of a middle-aged man (also, great head of hair), but I see in him my worst qualities.  He dwells, stews and can’t be bothered to do anything about his lack of joy.  He lives with it like he has no other choice, and it’s that passivity that frustrates me.

Sure, the movie is about him learning to embrace life, but it takes a beautiful woman falling into his lap to make this happen.  He has someone reach out and pull him to his feet, which is often not how life works, and it seems to undermine the idea that we are all responsible for our own sense of joy in life.  You can find it in other people, in shared experiences, but it takes a firm commitment to seeing yourself and the world properly.

Oliver shares screen time with his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), who comes out of the closet after his wife’s death.  He’s a man in his mid to late 70s who is excited to embrace this new chapter in his life.  It’s his commitment to the present that frees him, and it’s that same commitment which we are led to believe inspires Oliver in his own journey.

It’s so amiable, so joyful that it’d be easy to miss a darkness which runs through all of this, specifically the sadness felt by Oliver’s mother and Hal’s wife, Georgia (Mary Page Keller).  She, presumably, got her way when Hal tells us that she convinced him to marry her despite knowing his sexuality.  They made a compromise, but we never exactly know what for.

If they stayed married for Oliver, or Hal hid his sexuality for the same reason, then it was a mistake.  Oliver, in flashbacks, is attuned to his mother’s sadness and his father’s distance.  He never believes they were truly in love, and we are given no reason to think he’s wrong.

The flashbacks throughout the film show Oliver as a ten year old boy, spending ample free time with his mother.  When we see middle-aged Hal, it is only in silhouette.  He’s a shadow cast over Oliver’s and Georgia’s life rather than a real presence.

This gives you the feeling that Oliver never had much of a relationship with his father, but as Hal neared the end of his life, Oliver does seem to be quite close with the man.  It’s an intimacy that seems quite jarring when we see how affected Oliver was by his parents’ unhappy marriage as a child and how disaffected he is in general as an adult after his father passes.

He’s a subdued character who, when provoked, is quite capable of embracing life.  He’s an energetic dancer, a willing anarchist (in small ways) and something of a romantic.  He’s playful and sincere, but this has been buried by broken relationships and a childhood example that suggested adults are meant to be sad.

I love this film because it feels playful.  I fell for its characters immediately, and I adore the storytelling structure and graphic design involved in the various fourth wall breaks.  This is like a study in anthropology, a story beyond just the immediate text.  It’s not about Oliver, Hal, Georgia or Oliver’s love interest, Anna (Melanie Laurent) but something bigger.

The film calls attention to things you normally wouldn’t bother to notice, even in period piece films.  Mills does a tremendous job of establishing a sense of place and time, and he would do an even better job in his follow up film, 2016’s 20th Century Women.

He seems concerned with the ways things change and remain the same.  The way people dress, smile, are photographed versus the more abstract things which permeate time.  Oliver’s adult melancholy is seen clearly in his mother and father’s marriage, and certain cuts are meant to really hammer the point home, that Oliver learned how to love (or not) from them.

I guess it’s a story about what lasts and how long it lasts.  The melancholy Oliver feels is like a footprint left by his parents, just as they are in many ways a footprint left by the people before them.  Eventually the footprints fade and are consumed by time, but that’s okay because, as the film’s final beat seems to convey, it’s just important that we enjoy what’s before us and don’t worry about what’s behind.

The more I think about this positive message, the more it pains me to think of poor Georgia, her life having ended with four months of cancer treatment and a wilting memory and brain that follows what’s suggested to have been a wilted spirit.

Up Next: Lars and the Real Girl (2007), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)

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