BEGINNERS (2010–released 2011)
Directed by Mike Mills
Olympus Pictures, 105 mins. R (For no reason other than gay people are shown)
* * *
Some movies fail because they suck and some because they can’t get mass distribution in a market dominated by just six studios. (That’s the fate of most independent, foreign, experimental, documentary, and non-linear films.) Then there are films that flop because their production companies don’t have a clue of how to market them. Place Beginners in the latter category; its worldwide box office was a paltry $14 million. I suspect most audiences avoided it for the same reason I did when it was in theaters: a dreadful trailer that promised to reduce gay people to swishy stereotypes.
I concede to gay friends and family that the movie has elements of swish and camp. Goran Visnjic is guilty of this; as the character Andy his acting palette has just two tones: the happy puppy-eyes look that precedes a hug, and the baleful downcast glance that it is usually followed by the line, “It’s because I’m gay, isn’t it?” (No; it’s because you’re acting as if you’re brain-damaged!) Visnjic’s mediocre performance signals that Beginners is no Long Time Companion; it’s not even Philadelphia. But that’s part of my point. What it’s also not is a “gay” film; it’s a film that happens to have gay characters, but whose center is a heterosexual relationship. And it’s not even about that. It’s really about what each of us find within ourselves when we stop playing expected social roles and take time to ask ourselves who we really are and what we really want. The title Beginners is ironic; it references the “Ah ha!” moment in which you finally make sense of something that has tripped you for years and begin to move on.
In the case of 71-year-old Hal (Christopher Plummer), it’s the liberation that comes after his wife Georgia (Mary Page Keller) dies–he can finally openly live the gay life he has craved since his adolescence. This revelation shocks his 38-year-old son Oliver (Ewan McGregor), but it also helps him clear leftover childhood trauma. It explains why his father was so both physically and emotionally absent, why his mother was morose, and why family conversations were like ships leaving different ports and moving in opposite directions. He also learns that Georgia was also trapped–by expectations that she be a dutiful housewife and not the bohemian flake that she really was. And it really explains why Oliver has t-shirts that last longer than most of his relationships.
As they say, a funny thing happens in the five years between his father’s coming out and his death. Hal and Oliver reconnect, but more to the point, Oliver observes his father’s joy–first through judging eyes and then through his own sadness. When Anna (Mélanie Laurent) appears on the scene, Oliver is in the midst of deep depression and cynicism. Anna is a French version of his mother–free-spirited, blunt, and marching to a different drummer. She’s also drop-dead gorgeous and is attracted to Oliver. The film explores whether this relationship is as doomed as Georgia’s belief she could “fix” Hal, or if Oliver can find his inner joy before he turns 71 like his old man.
I can say not more except give this film a try on video. It’s way more intelligent that the trailer made it out to be. It’s certainly not a great film, but it is a diverting one that deserved better. And it’s definitely not a gay film. It does veer toward stereotype in several scenes–doesn’t Hollywood stereotype everyone?–but in an odd way it redeems itself. When the camera moves away from establishing (read: hit us on the head) shots that identify who is gay and who isn’t, the movie is at its best: gay people and straight people interact, carry the same emotional baggage, and do their best to help those they care about. You know; just like real life when people put aside all labels except “human.”