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.
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.