Splices: “Beginners” (2011)

Sometimes the cinematic world seems to collaborate with time and space to find you, teach you, and encourage you in just the way you need.  It’s the magic of movies — of all art, really.

And today BEGINNERS and the universe joined forces to do that for me.  On its surface, this film is about a man trying to make sense of several things (the stories of which interweave throughout the film):

  • His elderly father’s declaration that he is gay shortly after the death of his wife (and the man’s mother) after 40-some-odd years of marriage.
  • His childhood, and especially his relationship with his mother, in light of this news.
  • His new relationship with his father, who is also dying of cancer.
  • His own life once his father has passed away.

Now, that’s some heavy material, but writer/director Mike Mills handles it all with a light touch.  Ewan McGregor, as son Oliver to Christopher Plummer’s Hal, carries the film with goodhearted but overwhelmed bafflement.

After Hal’s death, Oliver finds himself becoming more and more isolated, finding companionship pretty much only in Hal’s dog (now his).  It’s in this state that he meets Anna (played by Mélanie Laurent with that mysterious charisma only French actresses seem to have) after being dragged to a party by his friends who simply want him to be who he was “before.”  Despair is sometimes more easily addressed and communicated when a relationship is a blank slate.  When you’re in the thick of it, sometimes interacting with people who knew you before, who expect you to be the same, is simply too much.  A relational blank slate can be incredibly appealing because you can be who you are now, with zero expectation.  In short, it’s an opportunity for a new beginning.  And that is what Oliver and Anna find in each other.

And that brings us back to the overarching theme of the movie: beginning — again and again and again.  The human tendency is to get stuck in the mire that is “the end” — in Oliver’s case, the death of his mother, the death of what he thought his childhood was, the death of what his relationship with his father was, his father’s physical death, even his relationships are all plagued by the fact that he is already caught up in their ends even as they are starting.

Beginnings are always hard, because in each of them, we are always cast as beginners — inexperienced, unknowing, and even fearful.  It’s entirely understandable that we want to avoid them.  The idea of having to start over is often scarier than clinging to the vestiges of something long gone by.  But it’s the beginning again (and again, and again) that really defines the act of living.

And this is the message BEGINNERS delivered to me, in its quirky and light-hearted way, at a time when I needed to hear it.  It’s a good message no matter where you are or what you’re dealing with in life, because sooner or later, things do end, and it’s nice to remember there’s magic in beginning again.

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6 Responses to Splices: “Beginners” (2011)

  1. All right, time for me to chime in, since I went and saw this on recommendation. I think that it’s ridiculous that movies like this have been relegated to that nebulous, frightening miasma known as ‘indie films’ where the mumblecore and the navel-gazing reign supreme. It has Obi-Wan and the vengeful Jewish girl from Inglourious Basterds, for Christ’s sake. In another time this would have been a modestly wide release instead of dripping out to the arthouse and indie theaters of the world where it suffers in part due to its wide audience appeal in a market mostly catering towards the different

    Not to say that it’s bad, mind. Far from it. I thought it was sweet and poignant, especially coming as I do with the baggage of living with a father not that much younger than Hal is portrayed in the movie. Thankfully, my father had no such declarations and is in a more robust state, but these kinds of movies always make me feel sad for the inevitable.

    I found it interesting that you found it so strongly about beginning, when I felt it was a movie that advocated a move away from that. Oliver begins again and again with new relationships, never able to take a step past the new and wonderful. Anna is always in a new place and a new person, constantly reinventing herself in any new city, living out of bags and cases. Even Hal refuses to do the mature thing in the face of his disease, happy to live the first part of this new life as a gay man where everything is new and happy, not the place further down the road where things become more troublesome.

    These people are stuck unable to do anything other than begin, to reinvent, because they’re so desperately afraid of being stuck in a sense of fulfillment that would never live up to their dreams. I felt the phrase “our parents generation were too busy to be this sad and never had the chance to be this happy” especially enlightening. Oliver knows he’s in this place where he should be happy, but he doesn’t even know what that means, and thus he constantly burns bridges in search of something that doesn’t exist.

    Anyway, like I said, it was a good movie. If I have one complaint, I feel its a generational one. I don’t know how much Mike Mills relates to the gay community or whether its a generational thing but the ‘gay issues’ theme seemed incredibly heavy handed and pedantic, like you were explaining it all to someone who had never heard of or seen a gay person. It seemed really insultingly blunt, but perhaps that comes from my own experience with people who have been out their entire adult lives.

    Anyway, hope you don’t mind me blowing up your comments section with a short novel. I figured it would be more apropos than my own competing splice. You’re still doin’ pretty good with the recommendations. 😉

    • I actually thought the handling of the gay issues was well done considering it was basically from the POV of someone who had been closeted his entire life. To an octogenarian, the fact that gay rights advocacy and support groups even exist is sort of equivalent to, I don’t know, what learning to use a computer was like for my grandfather, I imagine. It’s new and exciting for those willing to embrace it, so much so that there’s almost a childlike innocence to the sentiment compared to those of us who have grown up with full awareness of these things.

      As for your interpretation vs. mine about beginnings, I would simply ask, if someone repeatedly approaches situations and circumstances in the same manner, are they really beginning anew? I would say no. But then, I’m also the girl who wrote a lit paper declaring the text book wrong when it said all James Joyce’s short stories featured epiphanies because I disagreed with their definition of the word “epiphany.” So there you have it.

      • Oh, I’m willing to agree with the scenes with Hal. The one where he tries to explain the pride flag sticker was particularly nice, as was the “Is the chair gay too?” moment.

        The thing that really seemed totally out of sorts was Andy’s whole “I have every right to be here you know!” which seemed like it came out of a weird issue film that probably sucked and undoubtedly aired on ABC Family or something. Also the film’s weird repetitive explanation of who Harvey Milk was. As if another movie didn’t exist and that wasn’t a part of the modern consciousness at least on some level.

        Just thinking about this raises another question, one I don’t have a good answer to–why is this movie set so forcefully in 2003?

      • Wikipedia says it’s based on the true story of Mike Mills’ father coming out at the age of 75, five years before his death. So, that may explain some things. And I think it was forcefully set in 2003 just to be able to do the comparison year things. It wasn’t forceful so much as, “Well, we need to pick a year, so 2003 seems good.” There’s nothing else really associated with 2003 — recent enough to seem familiar but far enough removed to be the past. That’s my interpretation anyway.

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