Prior to becoming a feature filmmaker, Mike Mills worked as a graphic designer and music video director. Working with all the cool kids on the cover art for records from Beastie Boys and Sonic Youth, his unique visual style has been seen in clips for Air, Pulp, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Yoko Ono and Blonde Redhead. Yet merely listing the people in the Mills Rolodex is hardly indicative of his talents, not to mention lazy reviewing on our part. Besides of which, Mills is perhaps best known to cinemas audiences for his 2005 feature debut, Thumbsucker. With Beginners, Mills draws inspiration from the far more personal story of his father coming out as gay at the age of 75, five years before his death.
Beginners takes place from the point of view of Oliver (Ewan McGregor, The Ghost Writer) and is told largely in flashback. Following the death of his father Hal (Christopher Plummer, Priest), Oliver reflects on the relationship he had with his father. His father came out following the death of Oliver’s mother, found himself a younger boyfriend and filled his life with new friends. The film juxtaposes this with Oliver’s growing relationship with the French actress Anna (Mélanie Laurent, Inglourious Basterds).
On the surface, Beginners is another slice of the indie rom-com pie, convinced that it is doing something different by following conventions to the letter. Except, you know, ironically. However, Mills, like his wife Miranda July (The Future), has a taste for the eccentric and the subtitled talking dog (but not really) lifts this up out of standard romance-drama territory. However, there is a certain level of emotional disengagement to the narrative that, while often true to the emotionally disconnected characters (especially that of Oliver), makes this a tough film to be fully embraced by an audience. This is undoubtedly and intensely personal story, ripped straight from the pages of Mills life with the dashing Ewan McGregor standing in for him (ego, much?), so this makes the emotional disconnect even harder to swallow.
What truly sets Beginners apart from the rest of the crowd is the excellent cast that Mills populates his semi-autobiographical tale with. Christopher Plummer is over 180 roles into his career, and done it all from tolerating Julie Andrews to speaking Klingon, so his character’s decision to reveal his homosexuality is in the hands of an actor with considerable professional breadth. Likewise, Laurent and McGregor are perfectly cast as the hipsters trying to come to terms with their feelings for each other and the world around them in various ways. However, Beginners takes several familiar turns with its thinly drawn characters, especially in Oliver’s affectation of sketching major turning points and endlessly talking feelings in obscured witticisms. It is a trend for films made by the mumblecore generation, and one that Mills just gets away with here, although in the hands of a lesser cast and filmmaker it would simply be an annoying conceit. Either way, the film hits most of the right notes when it needs to, and no animals were harmed in the making of this picture.
Beginners is released on 1 September 2011 in Australia from Hopscotch.