Friday, December 23, 2011

Beginners Learning Curve Harder Than Others

There is a sad optimism that runs throughout Beginners, even when you think things are looking up for the characters, there is a cloud of despair that is always lingering nearby. While this may sound like a downer to some, Beginners is a rather uplifting film all things considered. Similar to director Mike Mills’ debut film, Thumbsucker, Beginners is a comedy-drama that is more drama than comedy.

Based on Mike Mills real-life, Beginners tells the story of Oliver Fields (Ewan McGregor) as he copes with the death of his father Hal (Christopher Plummer). It is the year 2003, and Oliver is struggling to overcome the grief that consumes him. Even when he meets Anna (Mélanie Laurent), a French actress, Oliver cannot help but reflect on all that he and his family have been through rather than just enjoying his new relationship. Hal’s death came five short years after the death of Oliver’s mother, Georgia (Mary Page Keller). On top of that, Hal informed Oliver, shortly after Georgia’s passing, that he is gay and plans to explore that side of his life which has been repressed for years. Plagued by the memories of his past, Oliver must confront his own intimacy issues if he hopes move forward with his relationship with Anna.

Beginners marks a huge step forward for Mike Mills as a director. While some of his stylistic traits in Thumbsucker became annoying rather quickly, his less is more approach this time around pays off. His use of photos and old time advertisements are effective in conveying both Hal and Georgia’s personal history as well as what they had to endure. Although he uses this technique throughout, it never feels repetitive or distracting. The same can be said for the way Mills travels back and forth through time. It adds a nice layer to the film as the story would have been less compelling had it been told in chronological order.

One of the advantages of constantly shifting in time is that Mills is able to highlight several key moments between Oliver and both of his parents. Both Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer give wonderful performances. They bring a lot of heartfelt emotion to their scenes together without ever making the film feel sappy. I also thought the understated performances by both Mélanie Laurent and Mary Page Keller added beautiful texture to the film. Keller in particular subtly infuses Georgia with a level of complexity that is rather unexpected.

Beginners has steadily been picking up awards since it premiered at TIFF in 2010. While the majority of the praise has gone to Plummer’s performance, the film surprised many recently by sharing the Best Picture award with Tree of Life at the recent Gotham awards. Whether or not Beginners can continue this award momentum is debatable, but it is tough to that the film is well crafted. Beginners may not leave you in a joyful mood, but it will make you appreciate the small things in life.

Beginners is part of our "The Must See List" series. The film was recommended by Sam.


  1. Just saw this last week. I agree with what your term 'sad optimism', the whole atmosphere felt mellow but uplifting. This is one of my favorites this year. Good review :)

  2. I had the privilege of attending a screening that included a Q-and-A with Plummer afterwards. He's had a long and remarkable career, but I've mostly known him for playing bad guys and/or tough guys. So it was great to see him not only cast against type, but to get such widespread praise for it as well.

  3. Phips6:07 pm

    So glad you reviewed this on here. I turned down the opportunity to see this in theaters but as soon as I watched it a few months later I immediately regretted passing this one up. This film instantly became one of my favorites.

    I dont know what to say about this film besides the fact that its awesome and very true to life. I'm glad some films will show "the other side" of life instead of the normal "life is great and we all know what to do".

    Melanie Laurent steals the show for me. She was fantastic in this film and the scene where Ewen meets her at the costume party and holds his impromptu interview with her and her notepad is fantastic. One of my favorite scenes in any film.

    Highly recommend this.

  4. @Andina – It really is amazing how well the film balances the sad aspects with the uplifting one.

    @Rich – That must have been a fantastic Q & A to see. Plummer is considered acting royalty up here in Canada, not only for his film roles but his stage work as well.

    @Phips – I am a little sad that I missed seeing this in theatres as well. I agree with on Laurent’s work in the film is wonderful. Her performance at the costume party is one of my favourite scenes from the film as well.

  5. THANK YOU for mentioning Mary Page Keller. She is so devastating that the potent flaw in the film, for me, is the fact that we don't see more of her (I love, for example, that moment at the gallery where she puts her head on the woman's shoulder). The film is just lovely (no other comes to mind that works as well). I just wish it was getting remembered for more than Plummer, it fires on all cylinders.

  6. @Andrew – I am surprised Mary Page Keller is not getting award recognition for her work in this. She plays such a pivotal role in regards to Ewan McGregor’s character emotional state for the bulk of the film.


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