They say it is never too late to pursuit the happiness in our life. In Mike Mill’s “Beginners”, Hal makes a good example to his son Oliver. Hal has recently lost his wife and he is over 70, but he is very willing to begin the new chapter of his life. He confesses to his son that he has been gay all the time, and then he searches for the love of his life, who, to our surprise, comes quite easily to him. Though Hal is told he has few years to live because he has cancer like his deceased wife, he does not mind much, because, to a man at his age, it is rather a relief to know that the closing time is near.
In contrast to his father happy to come out of closet, Oliver, played by Ewan McGregor with a good understated performance, is an emotionally stunted man afraid of getting out of his comfort zone. When a French actress named Anna(Melanie Laurent) approaches to him at the party, he is reluctant to begin a new relationship, but the relationship is soon formed between two people who share a similar problem with love and commitment.
The movie moves between three different time points: Hal’s remaining years seen through Oliver’s eyes, a growing relationship between Oliver and Anna at present, and Oliver’s childhood with his mother(Mary Page Keller), who, according to Hal, knew that he was gay from the beginning but chose to marry him anyway. While Hal was mostly absent due to his work, Oliver and his mother spent lots of time together. While the marriage seemed to be cordial at least(we never know exactly about how she felt about her superficial relationship with Hal), Oliver’s mother was lively in her own way. She tried to have a good time with her introverted son, but he remains composed and moody.
Through his childhood memories, we come to understand that Oliver does not change much even after he grows up and becomes a fairly successful artist. Like her mom, the people around Oliver want him to have some fun along with them, but he has been content with living alone in his apartment after his failures with four relationships. He likes Anna, but he hesitates to move their relationship to the next stage because he is afraid of another ruined relationship, which is ironically caused by his worry about that. But this time, Oliver comes to realize he is responsible for his unhappiness. He tries to make their relationship work, though both have no idea about what’s next for them.
As a couple with problems, McGregor and Laurent have nice chemistry together right from their atypical encounter at the costume party. He dressed up as Dr. Sigmund Freud, and she, dressed up as a gentleman, lies on the couch. They could play doctor and patient, but, unfortunately, she has gotten laryngitis and can’t talk. She instead communicates with him through written notes. She is correct about his mental state: “Why are you at the party if you’re sad?”
Still with unresolved feelings after his father’s death, Oliver looks back at back at his time with his father in his last years, who enjoyed his remaining time as a man finally frank about his sexuality while trying to get close to his son. Christopher Plummer has been noticed by us for more than 40 years since he played Captain von Trapp in “The Sound of Music”(1965), but he has recently been more interesting with the memorable performances including his Oscar-nominated turn in “The Last Station”(2009). His work here is both subtle and delightful. Once he comes out of closet to his son, Olive actively pursues his happiness. He goes to a gay bar and talks about the experience with his son on the phone later. He gets acquainted with his new gay friends and joins their activities including gay pride parade.
And he is happy to have the first boyfriend in his life. Andy(Goran Visnjic) is a handsome guy who works as a gym trainer and is studying to get a pyrotechnic license(I learned for the first time that fireworks require the license). Plummer conveys us his character’s feeling without a word when his partner goes out to meet someone else. Although they agree to have an open relationship and Hal can accept the fact that he is old and Andy is young, he knows it hurts sometimes because of his love. But he cares about Andy anyway, and, surprisingly, so does Andy. Visnjic has a poignant scene between him and McGregor. Andy really misses Hal; he was not only a father figure he never had but also a partner he loves.
With the story partially based on the relationship between him and his father, the director/writer Mike Mill makes a warm human drama mixed with quirky humor. I liked his movie “Thumbsucker”(2005) for its offbeat but believable characters free of conventions and their equally convincing story, and the same can be said of this movie, too. Hal’s part may to be too interesting to be remained as a subplot for the story of Oliver and Anna, but it serves its purpose as the father’s heartfelt lesson to his son in his crucial moment.
The movie has small funny moments, and it tries several quirks for humor, including showing the things reminded in Oliver’s mind through quick visual montages. The quirkiest one is, what do you know, Hal’s dog left to Oliver. A dog speaking to its owner could be distracting, but the movie has some way of making this silly premise acceptable at least for a while. Anyway, don’t the dog owners sometimes feel that their dogs can communicate with them, at least in their imagination?
“Beginners”, which will be soon released on DVD and blu-ray in US and released at theaters in South Korea, is a low-key but humorous human drama. We have come across its familiar life lesson in many other good dramas/comedies, but it has nice, engaging people, and it has its own story to tell. In addition, there is that Jack Russell dog. It is so lovable with its shaggy looks that I’d like to caress it.