Universal // 2011 // 104 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Franck Tabouring (Retired) // November 30th, 2011
You have to start somewhere...
Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer turn in a set of fascinating performances in Mike Mills' Beginners, a heartfelt, thought-provoking little drama focusing on one man's bittersweet struggle to adapt to change. Striking an enjoyable balance between artsy and sophisticated, Mills delivers an emotional story backed by genuine characters you simply can't help but fall in love with.
McGregor plays Oliver Fields, a talented graphic designer who tends to overthink things. He also spends a lot of time analyzing his relationship with his late father Hal (Plummer), who came out of the closet following his wife's death and consequently adopted a brand-new lifestyle. Busy mourning the loss of his dad, Oliver gets his own shot at changing up his life when he meets Anna (Melanie Laurent), an energetic young woman who dares him to explore the possibilities of a romantic relationship.
One of the reasons Beginners works so well is Mills' ability to keep the focus on his characters without ever deviating from the film's mission to have them overcome their obstacles. He adheres to the rules that pretty much guarantee successful filmmaking, and the result of his efforts is one of the most authentic, compelling character studies I've seen onscreen this year. The film's heart is the gradual transformation of McGregor's Oliver Fields, whose struggle to overcome the loss of his dad is cleverly portrayed through a horde of flashbacks detailing the memories he has of life with his parents.
In this sense, Oliver's dad Hal immediately becomes a central character in the movie as well. He's the one keeping his son from moving on, and truth be told, he's also the one who shook up Oliver's life shortly before his passing. If it hadn't been for his announcement that he's gay, Oliver would probably look at his dad's existence in a completely different way. Hal came out shortly after his wife's death, quickly embarking on a mission to live openly as a homosexual. He tells Oliver he doesn't just want to be "theoretically gay," and the transformation he consequently undergoes is one of the film's most powerful aspects.
Essentially, Beginners is a movie all about transformations, some ignited and pursued willingly, and others rejected involuntarily. The latter clearly applies to Oliver, whose memories he can't help but stick to pain him dearly. In fact, you can think of him as the kind of guy who can't cherish the present because he's stuck in the past. This way of strolling through his life makes it nearly impossible for him to focus on a potential relationship with Anna, who as one of the film's supporting characters does her part to pull Oliver back into the here and now.
This may all sound like heavy stuff, and Beginners certainly boasts its share of emotional drama. That said, the film also works as a light comedy. Mills' script is filled with little moments of delightful humor, which kick in especially during the portrayal of Hal's desire to be a practical homosexual. Oliver's relationship with Anna also has its memorable moments, although I think it's important to point out their interesting relationship is of a more subtle fashion. It is, however, cute and funny in its own way.
Emotionally charged, Beginners can be heartbreaking at times, even though Mills does a fine job staying away from anything overly saccharine. The film's third act prides itself in adopting a more serious mood, following Oliver as he starts to realize he's been the closest he's ever been to his dad right before his death. Viewers are in for some sad twists along this journey, but the good thing is the film eventually leaves us all with a feeling of hope.
Slow-paced but continually engaging, Beginners deserves praise for Mills' authentic, intelligent dialogue that actually has something valuable to add to the story and the growth of the characters. Besides the gorgeous cinematography, there is one more major thing I have to mention. Of course, I'm talking about the outstanding cast, which manages to bring Mills' sophisticated story to an entirely new level. McGregor proves yet again he's got all it takes to shine in a complex role, and he gracefully masters Oliver without ever making us doubt his character's credibility. Plummer is equally brilliant as Hal, and if it were up to me, he'd receive an Oscar nomination in a heartbeat. Mélanie Laurent lights up the screen as Anna, and even Goran Visnjic turns in a fine performance as Hal's lover Andy.
The standard-definition version of the film boasts a superb 1.85:1 widescreen presentation with a clean, sharp image and excellent audio transfer. Special features include an interesting featurettes, a promo and a feature commentary with Mike Mills. The latter is the perfect opportunity for fans of the movie to learn more about Mills' process, the story and the making of Beginners.
Beginners ranks very high on my list of the year's best films. It's a movie with a story that will engage your brain and characters you simply can't get enough of. It's a film with a message that means something, and it clearly doesn't beat around the bush when it comes to making a point and examining its characters. Mills has crafted a lovely film that deserves recognition. I can only recommend you experience it for yourself.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Official Site