In a dissection of his life, Oliver Fields (Ewan McGregor) explores different segments of his childhood, family life, and love life. Just like memories, these snapshots are not in any particular order; rather, they are told as very loosely-related flashbacks. They primarily explore two of the protagonist’s relationships. The first is with Oliver’s dad, Hal (Christopher Plummer), a gay man who comes out of the closet at age 75. The second is Anna (Melanie Laurent), a French actress whom Oliver meets at a party and falls in love with, shortly after his father’s death. Through these episodes, he conveys complex emotions, both happy and sad ones.
Whether or not the viewer knows that Beginners is semi-autobiographical, the fact is that writer-director Mike Mills has achieved something very special. This is a tremendous screenplay, full of sincerity and wit, that presents its characters in an extremely human way. The film manages to be consistently bittersweet throughout; it never dips into sentimental happiness, nor is it wholly bitter. Rather, it effectively shows the way its protagonist thinks, feels, and acts, when faced with both love and loss, happiness and tragedy. Much of the movie is quite funny, but rarely in a laugh-out-loud way. It radiates sadness while still bringing genuine smiles, and therefore ends up feeling achingly nostalgic.
This film is clearly very close to Mills’ heart, and his decision to direct the picture in addition to writing its screenplay, is a brilliant one. His stylistic choices are very important here, such as the out-of-order narrative. By choosing a seemingly random order of events, Mills spins an intricate web of memories, each one bringing to light something about the characters. The pacing is very slow, but never makes the movie boring; rather, it adds to its overarching melancholic tone. Here the audience is treated with some of the best uses of photo montages I have ever seen. The montages comment on life and love through the ages, and reveal how things have changed so much, yet also remain so similar. In the vein of vintage Woody Allen, golden era musical artists such as Hoagy Carmichael and Gene Austin compose a good portion of the soundtrack, fitting into the film’s overall nostalgia.
It is rare for a film to have a truly great performance, yet this one has three of them. McGregor, Plummer, and Laurent are all in tip-top shape here, giving their best to three excellently written roles. McGregor has believable chemistry with the other actors; Oliver’s relationship with his father is complicated yet loving, while his romance with Anna is sweet and sincere. These very satisfying performances match the equally satisfying material, to create a picture that moves in more than one way.
Beginners respects its characters’ emotions, just as much as Mills’ material respects the actors. This is a terrific movie, one that is humble in size, but emotionally vast. Humor and sadness are layered together in a near-perfect blend, drawing a portrait of not only the characters, but of humanity itself. It is a personal and observant film, one that nails a whole bevy of feelings.