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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, June 10, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 23
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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'The best' - Beginners is profound

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

Beginners
Opening June 10


Writer and director Mike Mills' Beginners is the best film I've seen this year. The followup to the filmmaker's wonderful 2005 effort Thumbsucker, this inventive and surprising comedic drama of fathers, sons, relationships, sexuality, and life is an engaging emotional frolic filled with numerous delights. It is a marvel of storytelling and character, telling a relatively familiar and potentially melodramatic tale in a way that feels different, new, and profound.

Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is in a relationship with quietly eccentric French actress Anna (Mélanie Laurent). They met at a costume party - he was dressed as Sigmund Freud and dealing with an emotional cesspool involving his late father Hal (Christopher Plummer), while she was looking like a dowdy Charlie Chaplin struggling with laryngitis. They find themselves relating on levels both intimate and therapeutic, each discovering an easygoing catharsis in spending time together.

Presented in a smooth, oddly beguiling nonlinear fashion that feels like bits and pieces of Oliver's memories presenting themselves at the most naturalistic of times, Mills handles all of the multifarious tangents of his protagonist's journey with remarkable ease. From his current relationship with Anna to his recollections of his mother (Mary Page Keller) as a child (Keegan Boos) to the dual discoveries of his father coming out of the closet as an old man and dating a much younger one (Goran Visnjic) as well as learning he is fighting terminal cancer, much of our hero's travails weave themselves around the viewer in a way that enthralls.

More than that, the film achieves an emotive authenticity that resonates far beyond the norm. It speaks to universal truths about who we are, what we want to do with our lives, our hopes, our dreams, and our inherent fears, all of which feel strikingly universal. It doesn't matter how surreal some of the corners are that Mills decides to mine and it seems perfectly natural when whimsical idiosyncrasies (like subtitled talking dogs) get thrown into the equation. Everything rings of honesty and truth, making Oliver's self-exploratory struggles all the more reflective.

McGregor has rarely been better. He taps right into this milieu from the start and does wonders with it. He brings Oliver out of his shell and makes him sparkle even when insecurity, rage, or timidity threaten to do him in. He lets his bravery come in stages, allowing him to wrestle with the issues generated by his upbringing in a way I could relate to and feel sympathetic with.

The past has always affected the future (the way we respond to adversity makes us who we are), and McGregor makes this battle innately personal while allowing the audience to join in on it with him, and as such makes the character that much more spectacular because of it.

Plummer equals McGregor, deftly underplaying his role where a lesser actor would have made him the center of attention and taken the excitable and sexually liberated old man into the realm of caricature. His performance anchors the picture, showing multiple sides that allow Oliver to get a glimpse of a life fully lived and not one to be apologized for, even if all facets of it weren't always entirely out in the open.

There's so much more to Beginners than this, however, its sum total not an easily divined equation that can be put forth in a simple mathematical form. Mills pulls the heartstrings but doesn't strum them; he makes his case for living life in the open but doesn't get didactic while doing so. He's taken inspiration from his own family history and divined truths that are as universal as they are remarkable, crafting a stunning work of comedy, drama, romance, and regret that had me silently cheering long after I'd left the theater.

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