It’s a film about love, loss, life, family, friendships and it has a talking dog… Well, he sort of talks. Yes, Mike Mills’ Beginners has all the stereotypical trappings of a drama meant to tug at your heart strings, tickle your funny bone and make you believe in the power of good. In this sense it isn’t attempting to do much more than many films of its ilk. And to quickly nail down what makes it such a hit while others pale by comparison is impossible as a wide range of aspects contribute to its success, from the script, to the editing, to the actors and the direction. It really is a perfect storm of competence when relating to life’s complications, ups and downs, laughs and loves.
Beginners opens with a montage of images narrated by the film’s central character, Oliver (played with all the charm he can muster by Ewan McGregor), a commercial artist who’s just lost his father (Christopher Plummer) to cancer at the age of 75. As these pictures flash before our eyes, bouncing back and forth between 1955 and 2003, the reason for each grows clearer and clearer. Made up of images from Oliver’s life and others that simply define an era, in just a few short minutes you feel as if you’ve known Oliver and his parents for years.
Oliver’s father came out of the closet as a gay man four years before his death, which also happened to be only days after the passing of his wife. Unbeknownst to Oliver, this change in lifestyle came as quite a shock, but the relationship between the two was strengthened by his father’s honesty, his new found lust for life, and, not to forget, his much-younger boyfriend (played by one-time “ER” star Goran Visjnic). This man was not the father Oliver knew growing up and it created a relationship that both excited and scared him.
Meanwhile, in present day, Oliver is trying to pick up the pieces of his life as he mopes around town with his father’s Jack Russell terrier, Arthur, always at his side, a dog that has quickly become the stereotypical “man’s best friend” in Oliver’s life. The two have one-sided conversations on a regular basis as Mills uses subtitles to give Arthur a “voice.” Perhaps, as a dog owner myself (and, call me crazy, one that frequently talks to his dog), this was one aspect of the narrative that captured my attention.
We all know dogs can’t talk, and when it comes to understanding what we’re saying they average out at about 165 words, but while this piece of the story is funny, it’s also an imaginative narrative trick. Mills uses this one simple tool to give us further insight into Oliver’s thought process and his private decisions. So, while it may seem Oliver and Arthur are having a “conversation,” Mills has simply come up with a way to give Oliver’s inner-monologue an actual voice in the film. It’s quite brilliant really.
The final piece to the Beginners puzzle is French actress Melanie Laurent, whom most will identify with as Shosanna from Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Laurent plays a young actress Oliver meets at a Halloween party during his depressed phase. Despite his downer attitude, there’s an instant attraction and you get the feeling it’s the first meaningful relationship Oliver has been able to have in a long time. So, of course, there are complications. Complications that primarily roost in Oliver’s head as his melancholy demeanor remains a barrier, which has even seeped into his professional life as he takes to working on a piece of cover art for a band called The Sads. Coincidence? No.
Throughout all of this, Mills’ script breathes life into his characters and the performances he gets out of his actors are evidence. There isn’t a single performance I would say rises above another as all are working at a top level. From McGregor on down the line to Laurent, Plummer and Visjnic, it’s a stacked deck.
Edited together seamlessly, Beginners bounces back and forth in time with ease, giving us all the right pieces of the story necessary to keep the narrative flowing, but never more than we need at any one moment. You’ll have doubts as to how Oliver’s situation will end up, sometimes thinking the worst, while always hoping for the best.
One particular quote stood out to me as it was said by Oliver’s father, “The minute I was told I had cancer everything I had not done floated before my eyes.” I took from this what I believe to be the film’s ultimate message which is to say life moves quickly, and if you’re not careful it will pass right by. Be sure to live life to the fullest and surround yourself with people you love and love you back. People you’ll remember, love and learn from. Because when it comes to living life, each day is a new day, and with each new morning we are all beginners.