“Well, let’s say that since you were little, you always dreamed of getting a lion. And you wait, and you wait, and you wait, and you wait but the lion doesn’t come. And along comes a giraffe. You can be alone, or you can be with the giraffe.”
Beginners is partly autobiographical, based on writer-director Mike Mills’ experiences when, following his mother’s death, his father came out as gay. It is, perhaps, a slightly more idealised version of real events – Oliver (Ewan McGregor) accepts this revelation, and his father’s subsequent lifestyle changes, without hesitation, and there is little indication as to any sense of emotional or personal conflict. Despite this, however, the film’s most effective, and most heartfelt, moments are those shared between Oliver and Hal (Christopher Plummer) – although, at the risk of sounding twee, they are closely matched by those in which Oliver and Arthur, Hal’s Jack Russell, feature.
Beginners begins somewhere in the middle, and flits between past and present. We first see Oliver packing up his father’s home after his death. It’s 2003; Oliver’s mother had passed away five years earlier, and shortly after this, Hal admits he’s gay. He embraces his new lease on life; his style changes, he enjoys the inviting company of other gay men, and gets a young boyfriend (Goran Visnjic). He refuses to let terminal cancer get in the way of this second chance that finally allows him to be the person he’s always known he was. Hal is stubborn, pragmatic, and kind – Plummer embodies the role to perfection, and deservedly won Best Supporting Actor (amongst other awards) at the Oscars for it. Of all the characters, Hal is the most complete; Oliver is sympathetic, but bland, while quirky love interest Anna (Mélanie Laurent) is kooky and cute, but at times threatens to become an indie cliché.
This is, however, an indie film, and unapologetically so. Oliver, a graphic designer, illustrates his voice-over with rapid montages, showing photographs and advertising campaigns from the 1950s, when his parents first met, in contrast with similar contemporary images. He amends his memories and reveals his emotional state through his art; simple doodle-like drawings depicting sadness and an almost self-indulgent sense of grief. Yet it works, and neatly retains the pacing of the film’s temporal meandering. There are some subtleties at play too: while this is essentially about a father and son’s relationship, and the son’s attempts to cope with his father’s death, flashbacks to Oliver’s childhood omit Hal entirely, suggesting there is an unexplored complexity to their relationship, despite their closeness in later years.
As a film about relationships (the title indicating not only Hal’s new beginnings, but the fledgling romance between Oliver and Anna, neither of whom seem to be ideally equipped to deal with such a situation), it is perhaps inevitable that some work better than others. As tender and poignant as Hal and Oliver’s is – and, it must be said, Hal and his young beau display a similar effortlessness and authenticity in their few scenes together – there is something very sweet about Oliver’s relationship with Arthur, who silently, loyally follows his former owner’s son everywhere like a shadow. Arthur allows Oliver to retain a connection to his father, and both human and dog need each other in a way that pet owners in particular will understand as both genuine and entirely valid. Mills’ exploits Arthur’s cuteness, channelling Oliver’s thoughts into the dog by way of subtitled responses, adding both humour and an unusual source of insight into the film.
Beginners is heartfelt and funny – not an out-and-out comedy, but ultimately uplifting. Mills’ provides a largely romanticised view; arguments are literally muted and briefly dotted into broader montage sequences, and there is little conflict, even during Oliver and Anna’s on-off relationship. It works, however, because of Hal as a character and Plummer’s portrayal of him, which is consistently sincere and utterly authentic. No doubt the autobiographical nature of Mills’ screenplay encourages this authenticity, and there is a deftness of touch and a sense of consideration and care present in the scenes focused on Oliver and Hal’s relationship that is less visible in other scenes. It is an intimate portrait of a father and son and, when it concentrates on this aspect of the story, Beginners is both understated and tender.