Sunday, 13 November 2011

“This is what people look like…”

Beginners: directed and written by Mike Mills

In a film overflowing with moments unique in their eccentric nature one of my favourite random scenes in Beginners is on where young Oliver’s mother takes him to his bedroom and tells him that he can come in here, lock the door and scream whenever things get too much and he feels the urge to let it all out. He emerges a few moments later. “I don’t feel like screaming,” he tells her. She responds, “You will.” And, in all her maternal wisdom you’d expect that she’d be right. She’s not. The curiously (but not inappropriately) titled Beginners is the tale of Oliver Fields. He is a charming, if stoic graphic artist who in theory makes for a problematic protagonist. McGregor, memorably at his best when using his hoards of charm must project a man with deep scars unable to achieve true human contact, but still worthy of our time. Opening the film with Oliver emptying his dead father’s pills sets us up for two divergent, but similarly dubious, films. Either we’re making our way into a farcical piece, or an overwrought melodrama. It’s a great achievement on Mills’ part that what we get is neither.
I’ve previously lamented, in this very space, the especially thin line between films aiming for realism and films succeeding in being mundane. Mills, though, achieves what few films in recent memory have been able to with a playing field that’s so slight. Acutely aware of the way that life exists less a prolonged narrative, and more a series of arbitrary vignettes Beginners achieves the naturalistic nature of real life with a charming cadence that never slips into oversentimentality. The narrative, and the use of the word is arbitrary since narrative suggest something much more linear, unfolds on three planes – Oliver as a child sharing random moments with his mother, Oliver as an adult caring for his dying father, and Oliver a few moments later falling in love with a French actress. It all sounds very precise and deliberate, but it in actuality it’s all rather free and unmeasured. This is no bildungsroman, and yet it’s an account of Oliver’s journey to repression and then through it. Perhaps.

The diffident manner in which the scenes unfold is not indicative of Mills’ uncertainty as a director, but rather is understanding of the tale, for it is something of a semi-autobiography. Ebb and Kander have a song that when “it” all comes through it’s a quiet thing. I like to think that that elusive “it” is more than just love, but a fuller appreciation for life and all that it’s worth and both Oliver and his father find “it” late. Appreciate of the life he’s forged, but tired of living in theory and a widower at 75, after a 40 year marriage he comes out to his son. It’s not incidental that in all the moments of Oliver as a child we never meet his father, but instead spend them with his eccentric and subtly sad mother (beautifully brought to life by Mary Page Keller). He’s grown up learning to keep people at a distance, an existence he’s stuck and one which the sprite-like Anna threatens. The love story at the heart of the film, then, is less of one specifically between Anna and Oliver and one between humans and life.
Beginners, then, stands out oddly when considered among the oeuvre of contemporary dramas. The wave of melancholy permeating the sweetness is mystifying at times as Mills encourages us to smile through our tears. One of the most inexplicable things you’d notice about art is that it is at its most universal when it takes great pains to be as personal as possible. Oliver’s voiceover narration, cannily interspersed with some excellent editing achieves the expansiveness of the human life, with the miscroscope still specifically focused on Oliver. It makes me think of Beginners as a polar opposite – yet, nonetheless, a fine companion piece – the issues of The Tree of Life. The father/son relationship of Plummer and McGregor doesn’t overshadow the story, though. Mills’ concern isn’t specifically man to man, but person to person.
Each time Oliver would tell us that this is what X looked like in a specific time, I’d begin thinking just how little there was to discern in people from then to now and I began to realise that it was this lack of obvious discernment which the film might have been suggesting in the first place. There is only one real end in life – death, which means that everything else, every new day, ever new experience is beginning and every day we are all beginners. This is what beginning look likes, difficult to explicitly discern, perhaps just as difficult to tangibly feel until it’s far gone and you just know. There is little about Beginners which screams excellence, it just is.



Nick Prigge said...

Finally just saw this last night. I knew you were a champion of it and you were right on the money. What a fantastic film. And this is a fantastic review. I can't even begin to express how eloquently you summarize it, but everything you say does the film the justice it deserves.

I put the Netflix envelope in the mail this morning and immediately regretted it. I should have kept it and watched it again tonight.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

nick aaaaw, man. this completely made my day. not that you liked my review (which is a plus) but that you liked it too. it's such am impossibly sweet film, and it just works so well.