Tuesday, September 27, 2011


Beginners is a very funny film but it isn’t a comedy. Sometimes the funniest ones aren’t. Instead it’s a drama. I don’t mean to use that word to imply the heavy-handedness that it sometimes connotes but to use it in that lovely way that David Mamet defines it. It’s about a collection of characters who find themselves in a moment and who we watch as they try to figure it out and do with it only the best that they possibly can given the circumstances.

True drama does not force us into feeling anything other than the empathy or scorn we acquire along the way. Beginners is thus a peek at these people as they love, lose, hurt, jump for joy and ultimately feel their way forward one step at a time. There is no beginning or ending to this story; just the momentary glimpse we are treated to that starts with the opening credits and closes with the ending credits to which we nod our heads and give thanks that we were blessed to have been invited along for the ride.

The story takes place between two intercut time periods. One involves Hal (Christopher Plummer, as illuminating as he’s ever been) whose wife of 40 years has died and who now, in old age himself, has come out of the closet as being gay. It’s not that Hal just woke up one day and realized he was gay, but did what was the right thing at the time and respected his wife until she was no more. That’s how things were back then. It’s not how they are anymore. Sometimes the most profound truths are found in the broadest of spaces.

The other story involves Hal’s son Oliver (Ewan McGregor) who is picking up the pieces and getting himself together after his father’s death. Oliver, a quiet graphic artist who cared for his father right up until the end, finds himself alone and awash in a sea of confusion. His only companion seems to be Hal’s dog, who he communicates to through subtitles, his job isn’t rewarding his creativity and nothing really seems to matter.

At a party Oliver gets a little drunk and meets a quirky French actress Anna (Melanie Laurent of Inglourious Basterds fame) who can only speak through post-it notes due to a throat infection and who leads a life as unstable and confusing as Oliver’s. The two hit it off instantly.

What’s most remarkable about Beginners is how well it juggles it’s drama to strike an even balance in that rare middle ground between comedy and tragedy. The film intercuts these two time periods so that we don’t labour on Hal’s death, which is intercut with scenes of Oliver finding his footing again through Anna, which is offset by Hal’s death and so on down the line; the past and future coming together to create one complete portrait.

The film is smart in that it doesn’t let itself be defined by any single one of its characters. It isn’t pinned down to one overbearing theme or tone or meaning. It’s thus a film of just-so-happens: The film isn’t about an old man being gay but just so happens to have one; it isn’t a film about a young man trying to find himself after his fathers death but just so happens to have one; and it isn’t a love story about two awkward and confused people coming together but it just so happens to have those as well. They are there, but they don’t get in the way of the film being about their life as they live in it, one day at a time.

There’s every possibly for the film to fly off into a messy spiral. It could have been socially conscious of the taboo of coming out as gay, it could have been another weepy indie melodrama about lonely hearts or it could have been a too-hip-for-it’s-own-good exercise in style as director Mike Mills' first feature Thumbsucker was.

Instead it slowly strikes an even and honest balance which manages to allow it to not be tied down by any conventions. Beginners is a film that is so gleefully comfortable just being itself. It takes pride in simply having the courage to be about these people, in the time that they lived and it represents them with respect and care. Any movie can be about something. It takes a truly courageous one to admit that it’s about nothing but the people that it is about and does that to the very best of it’s abilities. This is one of the year’s best films.


  1. Absolutely agree, I really wound up loving this film. Saw it within a week of seeing Tree of Life and was ready at that point to proclaim 2011 as "a good year in cinema." Solid review...

  2. I like this film and I like your review of it. However, I have to ask myself -- actually, I have to ask you -- if you give out your 5-star ratings too easily. You've given yourself 11 different possible incremental ratings: 0, 0.5, 1, 1.5, 2, 2.5, 3, 3.5, 4, 4.5 and 5. Shouldn't the best of the 11 be reserved for the be-all and end-all in cinema?

    Sorry, I'm kind of being a hater right now, but I don't mean to be.

    Good review.

  3. Thanks Wilde.Dash

    Vance- in response I will quote myself:

    "There is one fundamental rule that I believe when it comes to scoring films: it is pointless. I do it because it comes with the territory but really, what does a rating out of four or five prove? It doesn't assess the worth of the film itself because it is based on the preference of the writer and reflects their experience of the film and not the film's overall worth, in which case you should scrap the rating and just read the review seeing as that's what it is there for in the first place"

    In reality, the be all and end all of cinema is, probbaly, at this point, beyond review anyway and requires real criticism which is beyond star ratings anyway.