Uplifting, quirky, dark, funny, sad, and painful (sometimes even all of those at once), Beginners is the story of a man who – in the wake of his father coming out, finding love, and later dying of cancer – begins to reevaluate his own way of living and loving.
Ewan McGregor and Mélanie Laurent’s chemistry feels easy and comfortable in ways their characters’ life histories and developing relationship are not; Oliver (McGregor) struggles with depression and grief after the passing of both his parents, whilst Anna (Laurent) takes advantage of her constantly-on-the-move lifestyle as an actress to avoid the emotional entanglements that come with lovers, friends, and family. After meeting at a party, Anna and Oliver feel drawn to one another, and thus begins a romance that is heavily colored by their respective bits of baggage.
The film is unconventionally presented; events in Oliver’s present-day are interspersed with quick flashbacks which piece together the story of Oliver’s youth spent with a despairing mother, and his adulthood watching his father finally find love only to slowly die of disease. These quick jumps in time draw stark parallels that are brilliant at getting the audience to empathize with Oliver’s fears and insecurities. McGregor’s acting in these in-between moments of remembering his past brings a special kind of nuance to a character so afraid of being unhappy, that he won’t let himself be happy.
Christopher Plummer also gives a wonderfully warm performance as Hal, Oliver’s aged, ailing, and recently-out-of-the-closet father who is determined to make the most out of what life he has left. Hal finds fulfillment in being able to truly embrace who he is, and finds love in a relationship with a much younger man named Andy (Goran Višnjić), a relationship that Oliver struggles to come to terms with in light of his own views on love.
Though Mélanie Laurent does well in her role as Anna, her character’s backstory admittedly could have been fleshed out more (something a little more detailed than the one or two conversations where Anna opened up to Oliver about her suicidal father, perhaps). In the latter act of the film, her character feels a bit like a prop in Oliver’s story.
Indeed, Oliver and Anna’s romance feels secondary to the other issues and relationships that Oliver is shown working through, but that in no way makes it cheap or unimportant. Once the bubble of heady exhilaration that comes with new love is popped, the couple’s aforementioned baggage comes a’knocking – but now that they’re faced with reality, the characters can start to face their problems head on. And that is exactly what the movie has been building up to: a start.
Beginners ends with, well, beginnings: the renewed beginning of a relationship, and the beginning of a new chapter in Oliver’s life. It’s a not-quite-happy ending that should feel trite and overdone, but instead feels perfectly well-earned.
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Mélanie Laurent, Christopher Plummer
Director: Mike Mills
Runtime: 104 minutes
Genre: Drama, Romance