One of the great cosmic practical jokes is humanity’s enduring inability to capture, well, humanity on screen, which is probably why we make so many films about fighting robots instead. It’s the great desire of an artist; to depict human truths, as seen from their unique prism. More often than not, however, they treat us to overwrought, histrionic-laden melodramas, or precious, slight, and ultimately dishonest illustrations of life on Earth. The core human experiences – namely love and grief – are the hardest to portray. That’s not to say some charmed souls haven’t achieved this very feat; the resulting products are among the greatest films of all time. So although the number of these occurrences is less than ‘often’, at least it’s more than ‘never’, giving hope to all cinephiles hoping to see a movie that will touch them on the deepest level imaginable. Mike Mills’ Beginners may not be among the greatest films of all time (a damning condemnation!), but it’s one of the best examples we’ve seen this year of a truly ‘human’ film, and achievements like that deserve to be applauded.
The always solid Ewan McGregor stars as graphic designer Oliver, son of Hal (a charming Christopher Plummer) and Georgia (Mary Page Keller). When we meet Oliver, he is packing up his recently deceased father’s house; he lost his mother five years ago, and is now officially a 38-year-old orphan. Over the course of the film, he reflects on his relationship with his mother (as a boy) and with his father (as a man). After his mum passed away, 75-year-old Hal revealed to his son that he was gay; always had been, always will be. Given a second lease on life, Hal embraced the gay scene with a voracious joie de vivre; the very joie de vivre that has seemingly been sucked out of Ollie’s life now that he’s all alone. His only companion now is Hal’s dog Arthur (whom Oliver imagines can speak back to him, visually indicated by some hilarious subtitles attributed to the silent Jack Russell), until he meets the delightful French actress Anna (the equally delightful French actress Mélanie Laurent). He wonders if he’s found the one person in the world he can be really happy with. But the inadvertent lessons of his loving parents – who lived a sham for many decades – linger long after their death. How does he know if Anna’s the one?
Mills’ wife, Miranda July, covers similar (albeit bleaker) ground in her new film The Future. Not to inspire a marital rift, but Mills’ vision is a bit richer, and much more accessible. There are some potentially ‘quirky’ situational landmines that the writer/director skirts around, but skirt he does, never letting the gimmickry of a scene get in the way of its emotional truth. The stages of Oliver and Anna’s relationship feel real, even if their dates (which include roller-skating around the city and spur-of-the-moment graffiti attacks) don’t quite. The same goes for Oliver’s relationship to his parents: both are fondly remembered, but their flaws are never glossed over, even in his rose-tinted reflections. The mother is a manic-pixie-dream-girl crushed by her mid-40s malaise. The father embraces homosexuality, and Oliver is happy for him, but he never forgets that his secret was the cause of his family’s sadness.
The meaning behind the title is obvious, but it bears repeating. Mills, telling a profoundly personal and autobiographical story, reminds us that it’s never too late to start living. No, that’s trite, scrap that. A better way to put it is that it’s never too late to live better. You only get one shot, and one beginning, but bless this silly old world, sometimes you meet people (or in the case of family, are thrust into people) who are willing to at least pretend to forget what came before, and give you a second chance; to live better, to grieve better and to love better. Or, in the case of our eagerness to capture life just as Mills does in Beginners, to make movies better.
Beginners arrives on DVD in Australia January 5, 2012.