Beginners (2011)

Originally Reviewed – 6/22/2011

Throughout all the bombast and squall of the summer movie season, quiet little jems often get bowled over by the ever-present noise of the local mainstream cinema. While 2011 has been no exception to this, the quality of mainstream movies has actually been pretty decent. With popcorn munchers like Thor, X-Men: First Class and Super 8 all impressing audiences and critics alike, this summer has been a good one for movie lovers who lack access to independent cinema. Sad thing is that this influx of decent summer blockbusters has pushed the indie scene to the background even more than usual for this time of year, despite there being some quality films to be seen. One of those diamonds in the rough is the latest film starring Ewan McGregor, Beginners, a film that examines the balancing act between living in the past and taking hold of your future with mostly delightful results.

McGregor plays Oliver, a late thirty-something artist who lives alone, has a dog he talks to (and talks back via adorably funny subtitles) and has shut out much of the outside world due to a crippling shyness. The film opens with McGregor settling the affairs of his recently deceased father, played near perfectly by Christopher Plummer. This opening scene sets the tone of the film, showing us that while there’s going to be some serious meat to be digested, it’s all layered with a candy coating of wry humor. McGregor is pretty fantastic in this role, reminding me of how good an actor he really can be when given the opportunity. Displaying a great deal of subtlety in his very restrained performance, McGregor goes through the emotions of pain, loss and burgeoning love in a very real and connected way.

Of course, without some fine supporting acting, McGregor’s great work would have been wasted. After the initial introduction to the character of Oliver, the film splits in two, one half detailing the relationship between Oliver during his father’s coming out and the present time, centering around a new relationship with a charming actress named Anna, played by Melanie Laurent. The flashback scenes detailing Plummer’s admitting he’s gay at the age of 75, his subsequent newfound zest for life and the effect it all has on his now older son is easily the strongest stuff in the film, balancing reality and whimsy in equal doses. Inspiring, sweet and poignant, the zeal for living Plummer displays reminds us all it’s never too late to taste the sweetness life has to offer.

On the other side of the coin, the parallel story of Oliver and Anna falls into familiar territory. The impossibly cool couple roller-skates in office buildings, tags up buildings and go to parties with equally cool people, all very fun and interesting but difficult to connect with if you don’t live in Brooklyn or wear American Apparel short pants. Without the excellent work of both McGregor and Laurent in their respective roles, this hipster romance could have been intolerable but with some lovely chemistry and good direction by Mike Mills, the two hold together.

From personal experience, the older you get, the more closed off you tend to become, especially towards relationships and the people you surround yourself with. Like an emotional survival instinct, it gets harder and harder to trust someone for fear of experiencing that same old pain of rejection, especially when you expect things will eventually fall apart. Through the present life of Oliver trying to connect with a maddingly charming woman and the flashbacks of his father breaking free of those emotional bonds in his twilight years, Beginnings shows us both the joy of being open to the world and the consequences of being closed off. Although the film has a small hint of trying to be too clever for the room, the meat of the feature is something we can all take a big bite out of. A celebration of life combined with a cautionary tale of how easily it can be squandered, Beginners may have tried too hard to be everything at one, but when the sum of the parts is this emotionally satisfying, I find it hard to find fault with any of it.

Score – 85%


About Bill Tucker

Jersey based and New York bred, Bill Tucker is an author of film reviews, short fiction and articles for variety of sites and subjects. He currently blogs for The Austinot (Austin lifestyle), the Entertainment Weekly Blogging Community (TV and film) and (retro gaming). He's also contributed articles to Texas Highways magazine. His favorite pastimes include craft beer snobbery, gaming and annoying his friends with random quotes from The King of Comedy. You can check out all of his literary naughty bits at View all posts by Bill Tucker

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