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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Beginners (Limited Release Date: 6-3-2011)

        Personal film projects, like most things that deal with matters near and dear, can go a variety of different ways. Though they're almost always interesting, autobiographical films can be subject self-agrandizing and inauthenticity. But when One goes right, the results can be absolutely electric and moving. Writer/Director Mike Mills took just such a risk in bringing Beginners to the screen, its central relationship having been pulled from his own experiences with his father.

        Shy and creative Oliver (Ewan McGregor, serving as a stand-in for Mills), is at a tough place in life. His father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), has recently passed away at the hands of cancer, and though his departure has left Oliver feeling empty, it's what came before is demise that really shook him. A few short months after the death of Ollie's mother (Mary Page Keller), Hal announces to his son that he is gay, and that he plans to start seeking a lover and living an openly homosexual life-style... at the age of 75. Oliver is no homophobe; Within a short time, he's gamely supporting his father's life choices, but that doesn't stop him from being shaken by what Hal's admission means for his parents relationship, and, really, the way Hal has lived his whole life, and Oliver's whole view of love. After a short fling of burning brightly and exuberantly in his new lifestyle, Hal passes away, leaving Oliver to pick up the pieces just as he meets a girl (Mélanie Laurent) who might be the perfect balm for his pain.

        As anyone who has seen any of Mills' music videos or his 2005 debut feature Thumbsucker (Or any of his partner Miranda July's work, for that matter) can tell you that the man is high on style, a fact that he refuses to shy away from even in the face of such dire subject matter. The film is packed with artistic flourishes, such as collections of still photographs that help the audience contextualize the passing of time and Hal's ever-present obstacles, and a sickeningly adorable Jack Russell who is able to speak to Oliver through subtitles. Oliver and Anna's (Laurent) relationship could also be seen as too cute for its own good, stuffed with roller-skating, ironic graffiti, and a meet-cute for the ages. These are the things that have caused Beginners' detractors to take away from it, and they are the very things that have endeared the movie to me in a way that I seldom feel.

        Through the myriad of his risky decisions, Mills has managed to craft something both constantly entertaining and deeply, cuttingly personal. More than just keeping the wheels moving, the Director's artful choices allow the viewer to see the story through Oliver's/Mills' eyes, not only feeling his pain, but understanding the specific way in which he both feels and processes it himself. It's a tremendous, moving accomplishment, no small thanks to cinematographer Kasper Tuxen's exquisite lensing and the wonderful, emotive music of Roger Neill, Dave Palmer, and Brian Reitzell. Through in the expert use of flashbacks (technically all of Plummer's scenes), masterfully handled by editor Olivier Bugge Coutté, we see the contrasts between emotions, places, and times. Coming from the guy who did Thumbsucker, a fun and inspired but undeniably messy piece of work, its something of a miracle that Beginners feels so exacting, and... well... perfect.

        I expect that, sometime near the end of this year or the beginning of next, there will be a decent push for Plummer to receive his long-belated first Oscar for the part of Hal, and why not? The 81-year-old is positively bursting with glowing energy through-out the film, providing genuine pathos and believability to Hal's late-life explosion. But even with a performance so vivid and vivacious, Plummer has a difficult time standing out, as his co-stars are just as real and affecting. Laurent might be playing a pretty standard manic/artsy dream girl, but she handles it with easy, breezy, sexy aplomb that makes her both alluring and natural in every scene she's in. McGregor, on the other hand, spends most of the movie with his mopey face on, but his pain, quiet and sustained, can be felt at every moment, as well as the ever-prevasive feeling that a revelation is coming on, that something bright and beautiful might finally be right around the bend. Beginners is a warm, generous, beautiful, authentic, cathartic, and just plain terrific film, 2011's most complete work so far in a walk. The movie's tag phrase, 'This is what love feels like,' is no joke: In Beginners, I saw love, I felt love, and by the end, I was in love.

Grade: A

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