Film Review: Beginners

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Sons and Lovers

(Beginners, Mike Mills, US, 2010, 105 mins)

Mike Mills’ semi-autobiographical drama is an understated study in repression, recalling late seventies Woody Allen. Similar preoccupations; identity, sex and the romantic, inform a father and son story with a difference; not the more predictable yarn, in which one learns an important lesson from the other in a didactic and sentimental fashion, rather a story told in two periods, before and after the death of the Dad, in which both men probe long neglected parts of their psyche.

It’s self consciously quaint, punctuated by melancholic beats, scored with scratchy blues on worn vinyl, shot in long takes and rich with kook. Mills might have watched Woody, back in the day, and imagined his movies as a fine template for exploring adult relationships on film; the perfect paradigm for intimacy with one’s audience. If that was his conclusion, I can’t fault it, and we won’t begrudge the tribute, not when he’s gleaned such sincere turns from Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor.

It’s canny to begin with McGregor rifling through his Father’s closet, as ostensibly this is a story about his Dad coming out of one. Plummer, cannibalising the story of Mill’s Father, is recalled post-mortem, from the moment he told his son he was gay. The character is 75 and was, at his wife’s death, married for 44 years. The seasoned cinephile might flinch in anticipation of a heavy handed morality tale in which McGregor, outraged at his Dad’s proclamation and yearning for gay experience, initially recoils but learns first tolerance and finally understanding before the final reel. But this, thankfully, is not that movie. McGregor’s response, quiet acceptance, is altogether more interesting.

This is the beginning of an adult take on the father and son relationship, unburdened by cliché. Perhaps McGregor isn’t surprised because his Dad, never present in flashbacks depicting the boy and his witty but inwardly sad Mother, hitherto knew very little of his Father. We don’t doubt he loved his wife but we also suspect that forty years of repressing his true identity did emotional and psychological damage to each member of the family.

In the present day, McGregor’s character has inherited his Father’s illiteracy with women. He fears rejection, so sabotages his relationships, he’s sad but doesn’t know the root cause, he’s enamoured with, and goes on to court, a French actress, played by French actress Melanie Laurent, but, as suggested in a very funny scene in which the two meet at a fancy dress party with McGregor as Freud, the baggage is considerable and yes, it all stems from that childhood.

The strength of Mill’s film is that Plummer’s sexuality, though a hook to involve us in the lives of these characters, is almost incidental. This is a film about two men casting off well-worn affectations and having the courage to be real people. The biographical elements lend the script emotional realism, the performances, highly naturalistic, confer heft and while the fate of both, death and emancipation, is no surprise (one’s telegraphed, the other was inevitable if any of this is to lead to something), it hardly matters; Beginners is both touching and life affirming, qualities that many movies aim for but few truly achieve.

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