‘Beginners,” Mike Mills’s intimate portrait of a man coming to terms with life, death and love, may qualify as the quietest movie of the year. In the film, Oliver (Ewan McGregor) spends most of his time silently watching his world collapse and redefine itself around him as his elderly father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), comes out of the closet, only to die of terminal cancer five years later.
While Hal blissfully makes the most of his final years — embracing Southern California’s gay community, taking a young lover, embarking on ecstatic spending sprees at Staples — Oliver remains pensively on the sidelines, at once bemused and inspired by this father he never knew. Even Hal’s Jack Russell terrier, Arthur, makes nary a sound as he tiptoes through his owner’s well-appointed Los Angeles home.
For all its quietude, however, “Beginners” makes for sensational viewing, not least due to the vertiginous journey it takes through American culture, social history and the life of one family. Just as his father “turned in his gay card” when he married in the 1950s, his mother “turned in her Jewish card,” each of them eager to assimilate into
a dominant culture that was decidedly white, Protestant and heterosexual. In between flashbacks of his confused and lonely youth, Oliver offers brief tutorials on the decades when he and his parents came of age. “This is what 1955 looked like,” McGregor intones×, as familiar, wholesome images of the era flash past.
Best-selling author Deborah Tannen and a panel from Washington Post Live discuss the film "Beginners" at a screening at West End Cinema in the District. The panel was followed by a reception at Ris, where guests shared their reactions to the film.
What Oliver comes to figure out in “Beginners” is just how deeply the external forces that directly shaped his parents’ lives indirectly informed his own. And it’s that legacy — of shame, denial, self-censorship — that he tries to overcome when he embarks on a new relationship. Throughout the film, Mills, who took much of “Beginners” from his life and that of his late father, keeps up a running dialogue between past and present, interspersing scenes of Oliver’s life with his father, and later Anna, with montages composed of bold, graphic images. (The style will be familiar to fans of the music videos and graphics Mills has created for Air and other bands.)
The result is a movie that, while succeeding brilliantly as a simple and affecting love story, also creates a visual language for understanding the past that, as Faulkner reminded us, is never really past. Sometimes, the visual grammar of “Beginners” is literal, like those explanatory montages. Occasionally, it’s more allusive, such as when Mills shows an image of falling coins when Oliver receives the news of Hal’s terminal diagnosis.
And at times, Mills’s style is downright whimsical: The film’s most charming leitmotif is the telepathic terrier, Arthur, who acts as goad and romantic coach when Oliver meets an attractive actress named Anna (Melanie Laurent). Adroitly woven together by Mills, the collages, still photographs, subtitles and flashbacks work together to make a persuasively lucid argument that, as the filmmaker explained during a recent visit to Washington, “not only is the personal the political, but the emotional is historical.”