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Beginners (2011)

Today’s cinema adventure: Beginners, the 2011 romantic comedy/drama which garnered nearly universal critical acclaim and won multiple accolades and awards (including an Oscar) for supporting actor Christopher Plummer.  Heavily interweaving his narrative with flashbacks, filmmaker Mike Mills documents the efforts of Oliver, an L.A. graphic artist, to reconcile the memories of his childhood (and his grief over the recent death of his father) as he takes the tentative first steps towards a relationship with a young French actress.  Laced with clever, quirky humor, defying stereotypes and expectations at every turn, the film not only engages us with its charming story and likable characters but invites us to ponder the experiences of our own lives and our collective history, and how they provide us with the knowledge we need to grow and the foundation upon which to build a future beyond them.  Mills’ direction (from his own semi-autobiographical screenplay) is superb, moving the film freely between past and present, using its protagonist’s art to provide commentary and draw connections, and offering a wealth of “snapshot moments” which convey volumes about the characters and their lives without the need for extensive dialogue or exposition.  The filmmaker’s efforts would be pointless, however, if not for the superb cast, headed by the ever-lovable Ewan McGregor, giving a heart-breaking performance that manages to convey his character’s deep sadness without ever making him into a downer.  Melanie Laurent is equally effective as his new love interest- who is coping with parental issues of her own- and she, too, succeeds in maintaining both an attractive charm and a melancholy core.  But the most outstanding player here is Plummer, portraying Oliver’s father, a 75-year old man who comes out as gay following his wife’s death and embraces a new life, lived to the fullest, even as he faces his own terminal cancer.  This veteran actor is magnificent to watch as he captures the full spectrum of humanity, from the child-like glee he finds in exploring a world of which he has always dreamed to the dignity he maintains as he succumbs to the humiliation of his disease.  Fully deserving of all the accolades, it’s a performance that provides the strongest- but by no means the only- reason to see the film.  Los Angeles locals will also enjoy the Silverlake settings, lovingly captured by cinematographer Kasper Tuxen, which help to set the tone of Beginners– hip and quirky, but possessed with a keen awareness and respect for the past.  Mills’ film isn’t perfect: some would quibble that it borders on being overly precious, or that the characters’ troubles seem based on self-centered over-thinking and an arrested emotional development resulting from their insulated lifestyle.  However, this is a film about moving forward, about setting aside the emotional baggage of an imperfect past- while still honoring it- and finding the courage to face the challenges of an uncertain future.  In short, it’s a film about change, and therefore a film about fear- the kind of deeply personal fear which can make us all feel like children, no matter our age or background, and therefore cause our thinking and our behavior to seem immature from an outside standpoint.  Maturity comes with taking the leap towards something new, despite these deeply conditioned anxieties, and that is what each of the three principal characters in Beginners must do.  Frankly, I think it’s remarkable that a film addressing such a real and primal fear, and pervaded by such a tone of  bittersweet melancholy, can leave us feeling so charmed- perhaps that’s due to the fact that, above all, Beginners is a film about love, and given their emotional handicaps, if these people can make it work (and whether or not they can is by no means certain), then the rest of us can live in hope that we can, too.

About jpkcinemaadventures

Reviewer for the Los Angeles Blade. Not just a writer who loves film, a film buff who loves to write.

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