SXSW 2011 Review: BEGINNERS
Editor's note: This review was originally published on March 28. 2011 as a SXSW Film Festival review.
There's just something about the Bush era that makes for a great indie romance. Back then, anything was possible: homosexual fathers, depressed artists, and French actresses alike could run about with their talking dogs and tackle the daily dilemmas of life. So it makes sense that Mike Mills' new film BEGINNERS takes us way back to the year 2003 and lets us enter the lives of Oliver (Ewan McGregor), Anna (Melanie Laurent), and Hal (Christopher Plummer) as they discover the meaning of life and love in LA.
BEGINNERS begins (ha ha) with a series of pictures narrated by depressive artist Oliver as he compares and contrasts the imagery of the world in various significance. We see that while the world itself has changed over time, the universe remains virtually untouched by the ins-and-outs of human growth. It's uncertain whether Oliver feels more kinship to the world or the stars above, but we do see how disconnected each has made him. Perhaps adding to this disconnect is the reality that his father, Hal, recently came out of the closet after the passing of Oliver's mother. The now freely homosexual Hal dives into a world of celebration and exodus as his son blends slowly into the background.
Since BEGINNERS isn't a straight-forward narrative, we jump around in time as Oliver copes with his father's revelry and eventual death juxtaposed against his budding relationship with a French actress named Anna. Anna and Oliver explore what love means to a couple raised in broken homes. Together they attempt to conquer the overwhelming guilt of falling in love while in mourning. To steal a term from LOST, the only "constant" in the narrative is Hal's Jack Russell Terrier whom Oliver inherits after his father passing. Also the dog talks because...well, that's not really made clear.
The non-linear structure of BEGINNERS is nothing new to the genre, but Mills keeps it feeling fresh by connecting scenes with the duel-imagery discussed above. It should also be noted that the story of Oliver coping with his recently outed father is something incredibly personal to Mills. In fact, it's basically the exact scenario that prompted Mills to write BEGINNERS in the first place. So it stands to reason that the film is directed with a very keen eye on the authenticity of a person's emotional response to such an event.
BEGINNERS does feel wholly personal, and perhaps that's what gives some of the otherwise derivative plot details new life . This "fresh" feeling is also, in part, due to three very solid lead performances. Ewan McGregor proves that he has the chops to play a hopelessly depressing character without losing his signature charm. There are a lot of neuroses tied up in Oliver (enough to make Woody Allen blush at times) and Mills knowingly uses this to endear Oliver to the audience. Those neurotic tendencies are most highlighted in the interactions between Anna and Oliver.
Melanie Laurent shows her range as an actress, moving from INGLORIOUS BASTERDS to an indie romance seamlessly. The real victory of BEGINNERS is in her performance, which wonderfully dances the line between adorable and provocative. There are moments where Laurent is able to play around in different genres of romance cinema, ranging from silent films to boisterous romantic comedies. This wide spread of character interaction and emotion are something often attempted in films like BEGINNERS but are seldom achieved. Every time McGregor and Laurent are on screen it's effortlessly genuine.
For me, the weak spot of BEGINNERS is unfortunately Christopher Plummer's character. While well-acted (naturally, it is freakin' Christopher Plummer we're talking about here) Hal is just simply there to be a foil to Oliver's introverted ways. There are some good moments with Hal but ultimately I get the sense that perhaps his character had been the most difficult to write on a personal level. Plummer's performance is nuanced for sure, but at times it just feels phoned-in. We get some good moments between Hal and Oliver, but they are few and far between. This is also a unfortunate side effect of the broken narrative, and one of the few places it fails on a character level.
BEGINNERS will ultimately stay with those who can connect with Oliver and Anna's struggle to find love in broken times. Like many independent romances, the love story is packed with anxiety-laden characters (even the dog) but luckily the actors are up to the task and deliver genuinely emotional performances. Mills proves that you can do more in an independent film with the right chemistry. BEGINNERS may not be remembered for a groundbreaking storyline but it'll hold up well for it's emotional resonance. It has also made me want to go buy a Jack Russell Terrier but only if it's a talking one.