Not Bad for a Rookie, by Scott Nye
There are few red flags as bright for me as film as autobiography. Too often, people write the story of their lives because they’re not terribly creative people, but really really really wanna make a movie. The result is a maddeningly indulgent, self-aggrandizing film with a story not nearly as interesting as the writer/director would have you believe. So I had red flags going off all over the place when I saw that this movie was based on writer/director Mike Mills’ real experience of his father coming out of the closet near the end of his life.
Also, it starred Ewan McGregor, but more on that in a second.
What I want to first say is that I absolutely loved Beginners without…many reservations. Rather than wallowing in the absurdity of his situation (“and can you believe it, he was gay the whole time!”), it becomes an avenue by which he explores his own identity, how much the world has changed since his father was his age (and how much the universe has remained unchanged), the difficulty of finding love when you’re raised to expect perfection, and numerous other concerns. And if the film gets a little too indie-tastic with such touches as “The History of Sadness,” a roller-skate roam down the hall of the hotel, or a dog that communicates via subtitles, it all feels very earnest. At the very least, it doesn’t detract from the honesty of the emotion.
The main thrust of the story, at least in my mind, is the relationship Oliver (McGregor) develops with Anna (Melanie Laurent), which I’ll call “the present” (this actually takes place in 2003, but it’s as present as the film gets). The film dives back and shows us Oliver’s life as a child, when his mother was really his only parent, and then moves up more recently to explore his growing relationship with his father, Hal (Christopher Plummber), after Hal announces his sexuality. But all of this is through Oliver’s own reflections as he cleans out his father’s house and subsequently meets Anna, and the way his memory operates – based on emotion rather than chronology – is very well-executed.
The present is also home to the film’s worst tendencies, from introducing Anna when she has laryngitis (freeing Mills of the responsibility of crafting an interesting conversation while still presenting an intriguing romantic option in the form on Melanie Laurent) to the dog-with-subtitles thing to the really fundamental issue of the difficulty of making a relationship work when you’re just too self-involved to put in the effort. This comes later, naturally, as their relationship inevitably hits the rocks, but Mills narrowly eschews this tired dilemma by commenting on it early, and often. He’ll flash back to a conversation in which Hal berates Oliver for expecting too much from another person. Given that Hal has had the experience of putting aside his own sexuality to marry Oliver’s mother, and more recently tolerating his new boyfriend’s promiscuity so that he may have the illusion of love, Hal either knows very well of what he speaks or is just as delusional as Oliver.
Either way, this is clearly Mills’ struggle as much as it is Oliver’s. In voiceover (which is quite well done), Oliver muses on the fact that his parents lived in a much different time, and didn’t have the luxury of letting their emotion lead their love life or even much self-reflection. Most films tell the story of the revolutionaries who didn’t let the morals or laws of the time stop them from gaining their independence, but this is different. Hal knew exactly who he was, but was willing to be something else because the time dictated it. By the time he finally has the opportunity to live the life he always wanted, history has almost passed him by. His attempts to engage with the thriving gay scene in Los Angeles are funny, sure, but also surprisingly touching, and the best expression of the common old person mantra, “I have some life in me yet!”
I have a feeling this is going to be one of those movies that gets praised upon its release, but later on will be regarded as a sort of embarrassing film that is way too cute for its own good. Films that work on your heart first and intellect second rarely age well in the eyes of cinephiles. But art is all about emotion, so I say run with it. It has its flaws, to be sure, and maybe it is a little too cute for its own good, but I’ll take a filmmaker willing to pour his heart out and have the result be a little sloppy over someone playing it too close to the vest and telling another safe love story. Some art should be a little embarrassing.