Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Backwards and Forwards: BEGINNERS


It’s never too late to get a new start. At least, that’s what writer-director Mike Mills has to say in Beginners, a semi-autobiographical movie that follows a father and a son, each starting new romantic relationships. It’s a mostly solid effort, a film in which characters feeling boxed in by the lives they are living attempt to break out of them by trying to connect with others, to try and make their new starts last.

The father (Christopher Plummer), a handsome, recently widowered elderly man, sits down his son (Ewan McGregor), a single artist, to finally divulge a long-held secret: “I’m gay.” This surprises the son, but what surprises him more is the joyful intensity and all-consuming nature of this revelation. His father gets new clothes, new friends, and finds a boyfriend. He’s vibrantly alive in ways he had never been before, freed from the constraints of the closet. A few years later, he dies.

While grieving, his son glumly heads to a Halloween party where he meets a pretty young woman (Melanie Laurent) who came to celebrate the holiday despite suffering from laryngitis. They strike up a flirtation. He murmurs his charm from underneath a fog of depression. She writes down her responses in a small notepad, accenting her scribbles with gestures and wide-eyed expressions. From this Meet Cute, they begin a relationship. Mills cuts back and forth between the new beginnings of father and son, creating a film in which the memories of the father slip into the rhythms of the son’s narrative. The man just died, but he remains a presence. The grieving son is moving forward, but, through the film’s structure, he keeps moving backwards to reflect the past.

This is a low-key film of shaggy charms, wistful laughs and gentle sobs, filled with endearing performances amidst spare visuals. There’s a forced whimsy to it all, though. McGregor narrates the film with a super dry deadpan that errs on the side of preciousness, a fussed-over stream-of-consciousness that is interrupted from time to time by little drawings, photographic montages, or, worst of all, subtitles that give us unwanted insight into the thoughts of his pet dog. I could have done without the twee embellishments of such cutesy accoutrements.

Though I have plenty of little quibbles with smaller details, this is a muted film that works slowly and quietly and I can’t deny the power of the big picture. Yet I feel some indifference, some ambivalence, towards the film. I could see, respect, admire, and occasionally feel the impact of Mills’s choices, even if I was rarely drawn into the film. But the emotion of the film filters out through the layer of whimsy and feels painfully, acutely real. The contrast between father and son is the emotional heart of the film, a loving but testy relationship that uses their pasts to reveal emotions and expectations for the future.

Plummer is nicely subtle as a dignified older man surrounded by the books and artifacts of a long and learned life energized with the new freedom of living without secrets. He’s so good, in fact, that when we shift back to the present, I felt disappointed that we didn’t get to spend more time with him. This is, I suppose, part of the point. In the present, his son is trying to move forward without him, to start a new relationship while he still feels the pain of losing his father. He misses his father, and so do we. It’s a film about the damages of ending one part of life in order to gain the possibility of beginning again, that is itself somewhat damaged.

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