Directed by Mike Mills, his second feature, Beginners, despite its obvious heartfelt intent, threatens with its ever-present quirkiness, to lose any grip its hold upon the narrative.
Oliver (Ewan McGregor), in mourning after the death of his father from cancer, recounts his father’s final few months, in which his father confessions to Oliver that during his long marriage, he was ever-aware of his own homosexuality. Now that his wife, Oliver’s mother, has passed away, Hal’s (Christopher Plummer) passion for life is renewed, fully dedicating himself to gay-pride and gay rights, as well as dating; Hal is determined to enjoy himself, no longer hiding his true-self away.
As Oliver mourns he meets Anna (Melanie Laurent), whose relationship with her father is far more complicated. Both Oliver and Anna embark upon a relationship together, hindered by each other’s difficulty to both commit and their own emotional repression.
The self-consciously quirky style of the film largely works through the earnest narrative, thus the moments in which we see Arthur the Jack Russell voice his thoughts through subtitles onscreen generally endears, and yet it is through this very presentation that the characters never truly convince or engage.
It is the portrayal of Hal and Oliver’s father-son relationship and the manner in which Hal’s sexuality is presented that provides the film’s most successfully realised moments. Refreshingly and rather wonderfully, Hal’s admission is not the catalyst for the film’s narrative: this is not a film in which sexuality is presented as the central conceit. Certainly Hal’s sexuality is an important narrative moment, as well as an important factor of his character’s development in that it renews his desire of life, but for Oliver Hal’s sexuality is not an issue. In one scene, Hal rings Oliver after visiting a club, excitedly detailing his experience – Oliver, rather than admonishing his father, simply asks if he has met anyone.
Arguably, the film fails to treat its subject matter sufficiently: little is explained of Oliver’s mother, who through flashbacks we witness as feeling unfulfilled and disillusioned. Whilst Hal is certainly happy now exploring his sexuality, Oliver does little to question his mother’s happiness. Anna’s father too, is clearly unhappy and distressed, yet we are encouraged to think poorly of him sharing his unhappiness with his daughter.
Unfortunately the loose narrative structure crumbles under close scrutiny: Anna and Oliver’s fey-relationship certainly has its charms, but fails to truly encourage the viewer to care. Anna and Oliver’s relationship never fully develops: Anna’s problems with her father, or indeed, her background are never fully addressed, leaving her character largely one-dimensional. The cast are all fine, doing their best with the limitations of their characters’ development.
Beginners fails to leave any real impression, its style is far too laconic and passive to ever really engage.