Beginners is about exactly what the title implies: People making a start. In this case, they’re a father and son who, after years of living in fear, finally allow themselves to love. The father is Hal (Christopher Plummer), who announced he was gay some months after the death of his wife. He was already seventy-five at that point, but he took a refreshing approach and believed it wasn’t too late to live authentically. Cancer eventually claimed his life, although he still managed to fall and stay in love with a wonderful man, and he was able to die with nothing left unspoken. If there was something for him to regret, it would be staying married for almost forty years when both he and his wife, Georgia, knew he was gay; they came to an understanding for the sake of their son, but in the end, they were both wasting their time.
The son is Oliver (Ewan McGregor), an illustrator for a Los Angeles graphics design company. He’s a sad, desperately lonely man. He saw his parents’ pointless marriage from the very front row, so he has no reason to believe that relationships can last. It has become a self-fulfilling prophecy – trust and commitment are foreign concepts to him. By coming out and finding a boyfriend, Hal tried to set a good example for starting over. I don’t think Oliver was offended by his father’s homosexuality; rather, he was dumbstruck by his ability to love deeply and live happily, even in his final years. Perhaps he’s angry because he could never give that kind of love to his mother, who got the short end of the stick. Or perhaps he’s jealous because he’s incapable of giving such love to someone else. Perhaps it’s both.
A few months after his father’s death, he listlessly attends a costume party dressed as Sigmund Freud (although he looked more like the late screenwriter Dan O’Bannon). There, he meets a young French actress named Anna (Melanie Laurent), who initially cannot speak because she has laryngitis. She introduces herself by lying on a couch in front of Oliver and pretending to be a patient, all the while communicating with a pen and notepad. Beautiful and observant, she and Oliver instantly connect. She is, in fact, a perfect match for him. Her profession requires an awful lot of travelling; she has no real home except for a series of hotel rooms around the world. She cannot bring herself to fully unpack her bags. Later in the film, we see her apartment in New York City, which is unusually devoid of furniture. Like Oliver, she too is unable to commit.
The film is intriguing in that it’s not edited in chronological order. Time frame freely shifts back and forth, as memories tend to do. We see the months following Hal’s death, the years leading up to Hal’s death, and snippets of Oliver’s childhood. There, we see his mother (Mary Page Keller), clinging to what little she has left, slipping away finger by finger. I desperately wanted to run up to the screen, crawl into the film, and give this woman a great big hug, because that’s clearly what she needed. It would have been decent for Hal to divorce her, if not during Oliver’s childhood then at least immediately after he left home. On the same token, she could have stood up for herself and left her husband, for she deserved real love and affection. Maybe she was also living in fear. Unlike her husband and son, however, she never had a do-over.
In spite of the drama, Beginners is livened by undercurrents of optimism and levity. There’s a minor supporting performance, for example, by a Jack Russell terrier named Arthur, who started out as Hal’s dog but then became Oliver’s. His thoughts are on display as subtitles, and wouldn’t you know, he sees the situation in a way that Oliver doesn’t. There’s no inflated dialogue or pretentious insights – there’s just a simple, wise understanding how things are and are not. We, of course, know that this is really just Oliver having a dialogue with himself, but that doesn’t matter; the fact that he’s capable of looking at things from a different perspective every once in a while is a good sign.
An interesting character is Hal’s lover, Andy (Goran Visnjic), who may have been years younger but was capable of loving him just the same. There are times, such as during a hospital visitation, when he stands defiant in his homosexuality. At other times, mostly in the presence of Oliver, he seems almost apologetic about himself. Unlike Hal, it’s not important how long he has been openly gay. What is important is that he too is a beginner – he works towards getting Oliver to not see him as a threat. As with most of the other subplots, this one is unabashedly hopeful. I’m not going to sit here and say that life doesn’t work this way. For some people, maybe it does. Maybe we need movies like Beginners in our lives, for they remind us that it is possible to make a fresh start, and that we’re supposed to feel.
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