Film review: Beginners

USA 2010

Film still for Film review: Beginners

Reviewed by Kate Stables


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Los Angeles, 2003. Graphic artist Oliver clears out his dead father Hal’s house. His lonely months of mourning are intercut with a parallel narrative relating Hal’s coming-out at the age of 75, his zest for his new gay life and his death from cancer five years later. We also see flashbacks to Oliver’s eccentric childhood and his child’s-eye view of his parents’ asexual marriage.

Depressed after Hal’s death, Oliver meets free-spirited French actress Anna at a party, and they start a tentative relationship. He begins an ill-appreciated art project entitled ‘The History of Sadness’. In flashback we see Hal reacting to his illness by partying exuberantly and enjoying the company of his much younger boyfriend Andy. Hal and Oliver become closer as his illness progresses, and Hal confesses to his son about his empty marriage. He tells the morose Oliver to live, and love, in the moment.

Anna and Oliver become warily committed to one another. She moves in, but soon leaves again, unable to relax around Oliver. Inspired by Andy and Hal’s love, Oliver chases after her, determined to overcome his commitment-phobia. They are reconciled.


“Tell her the darkness is about to drag us down unless you do something,” urges Arthur, encouraging his depressed roommate Oliver to make a move on adorable actress Anna. But since this quirky, low-key dramedy is Mike Mills’s follow-up to the gloriously left-field Thumbsucker (2005), Arthur is, naturally, a Jack Russell terrier who speaks only in subtitles. He’s just one of a slew of self-consciously oddball conceits that mark out, but also weigh down, this sweet but terminally meandering tale.

Mills was one of the directors who brought both a distinctive visual sense and an original sensibility to the 1990s prestige commercial and music-video boom, in work such as Everything But the Girl’s ‘Temperamental’ promo. But in this semi-autobiographical second feature, his urge to express morose artist Oliver’s emotional journey through frequent recourse to (deep breath…) doggie chats, retro-styled graphic and photo montages, wistful commentary, childhood flashbacks, whimsical graffiti campaigns and a faux-naif ongoing art project entitled ‘The History of Sadness’ splinters the story and slows proceedings to a crawl. Sad to say, this creative cladding soon feels like hipster eye-candy decorating the coming-to-terms-with-life narrative underneath, providing repetition rather than thematic resonance – particularly since there’s a halting, understated charm that requires little garnish in the inept, stop-start courtship of thirtysomething Oliver and footloose Anna, battered into self-reliance by miserable childhoods and now struggling to shuck off their joint commitment-phobia.

As in Thumbsucker, Mills shows an unexpected compassion for his characters, shooting them simply, and giving Ewan McGregor and Mélanie Laurent breathing space to fill out the lovers beyond their slightly precious presentation. McGregor, whose role requires Olympic-standard moping, is quietly impressive, while Laurent is forced to rely more on kooky posturing. Both efforts are cast into shadow, however, by Christopher Plummer, who gobbles up the role of Oliver’s ebullient father Hal, busily coming out as a septuagenarian gay and teaching Oliver to seize life’s chances as he succumbs his own to cancer. Plummer, who is having his own late-life flowering, with notable turns in The Last Station and My Dog Tulip, brings a comic energy but also a determined dignity to Hal’s dive into bar-hopping and a May-December love affair that encourages Oliver to overcome the psychic wounds inflicted by his parents’ passionless marriage.

As part of the film’s formal tricksiness, the story of Hal’s coming-out and his passing away unwinds around Oliver’s subsequent love affair to make a two-timescale narrative. This allows Plummer’s breezy interludes (including a delightful sequence in which an ailing Hal rewrites Jesus’s life story, since the original Bible version is “far too violent”) to kick-start the film whenever the love story is idling under a ton of solipsistic artwork and dog-related story detours.

The wealth of narrative overlap with Mills’s own experience suggests that Beginners is a deeply personal project for him. Like mid-period Woody Allen it uses a bittersweet and formally innovative comic autobiography to fashion something that also recognises a generational hang-up, in this case the anhedonia or emotional diffidence that plagues Oliver and Anna. Would that he had also adopted Allen’s post-shooting mode, a fierce paring away of any inclusions, however delightful, that unbalanced the whole. One can only regret this writer-director’s decision to cram so much material into the mix that some fine understated performances, and much of the film’s emotional impact, are obscured along the way.

See also

The Science of Sleep reviewed by Edward Lawrenson (August 2006)

Debrief encounter: Nick James on the reunited lovers of Before Sunset (August 2004)

Moulin Rouge reviewed by José Arroyo (September 2001)


Mike Mills
Produced by
Leslie Urdang
Dean Vanech
Miranda de Pencier
Jay Van Hoy
Lars Knudsen
Written by
Mike Mills
Director of Photography
Kasper Tuxen
Film Editor
Oliver Bugge Coutté
Production Designer
Shane Valentino
Roger Neill
David Palmer
Brian Reitzell
Sound Designer
Leslie Shatz
Costume Designer
Jennifer Johnson
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011