A Time for Beginnings
Oliver (Ewan Mcregor) looks up from his colorful, loopy drawings of four different women: Amanda, Yuki, Christina, and Michelle, his past girlfriends. Above Michelle’s head are the dates 2001-2003. The year is 2003. Oliver’s hair is a mess; his eyes are crazed and vacant.
“Oliver, the pen is not your friend. The paper is not your friend,” Oliver’s coworkers, Shauna and Elliot, tell him over his shoulder. They reassure them that they are his friends, and he should accompany them to a costume party that night. Oliver sighs and consents.
Beginners, an independent film, traces the experiences of Oliver. The character of Oliver, like writer and director Mike Mills, is a graphic designer. Mills based the poignant, “à clef” film Beginners on many of his own experiences. In an interview with Thomas Leupp of holywood.com, Mills stated , “When you look at your memories they’re weird. They’re not like newspaper reporting. They’re more like your own little dream…this is my version, or my dream, or the thing I made into a story.” Mills’ comedy/drama premiered at the Toronto film festival and, after making a splash at film festivals across the country, is now showing at select theaters.
At a party and dressed as Freud, Oliver encounters Anna (Mélanie Laurent), smitten with laryngitis and communicating only with paper and pen. “Why are you at a party if you’re sad?” she writes on her notepad. “How could you tell? I was hiding it so well?” he replies. She duly draws a pair of sad eyes.
The eyes in Oliver’s professional life, too, are sad. As a graphic designer, he’s been commissioned to create the album artwork for a band called “The Sads.” Instead of portraits of the band members, he draws a long and elaborate “The History of Sadness,” chronicling everything from the invention of alcohol to the first gay man being diagnosed as mentally ill. In one drawing, a large ball labeled “past” crushes a man labeled “present.”
Indeed, the relationship between past and present in the film is disjointed and surreal. Oliver’s “The History of Sadness” is one of the only chronological aspects of the film. Oliver has based his history on clippings that appear interspersed throughout the film as montages. “This is what the sun looks like in 2003,” he narrates, “and this is what the sun looked like in 1955. My parents got married in 1955.” This is what people looked like when they were happy, this is what they looked like when they were sad. These montages are dated, but Oliver’s memories are not. His memories exist in a continuum not dictated by time, in a place where the words sadness and happiness take on new meanings by the manner in which they interact with one another. The emotions of happiness and sadness, which might seem trite and overused, are evoked by Mill’s as new words, as emotions which are more intertwined than they are separate.
Oliver’s thoughts flow between past, present, and future, as memories and current events intersect. Anna sitting at the desk as music plays in the hotel-suite background morphs into Oliver’s mother Georgia (Mary Page Keller), playing the same music in the apartment of Oliver’s youth. Throughout Oliver’s childhood memories, Oliver’s father Hal (Christopher Plummer) is absent.
It is not until after Georgia’s death that Hal comes out gay. He still loved his wife, he reassures Oliver. Yet he’s known he was gay since he was 13. When Oliver’s mother was 13, she discovered she was Jewish. Both put these parts of their identities aside when they wed. “That doesn’t matter. I’ll fix that,” remarked Oliver’s mother about Hal’s homosexuality. With Gloria out of the picture, Hal can only exclaim, “I don’t want to be just theoretically gay—I want to do something about it!”
And so he does. Hal begins dating Andy (Goran Visnjic), a fitness trainer who makes the filmgoer crawl with his offerings of slugs and bugs and his awkward demeanor. Hal believes everyone is out to get him because of his sexual preferences. “It’s not because I’m gay?” he repeatedly asks.
Yet as Oliver watches Hal and Andy, he can’t help but remark, “It’s the first time I saw him really in love.” As Hal approaches death, he comes to life, joining Gay Pride LA, hosting political letter writing parties, and inviting friends over for movie nights to show films like The Times of Harvey Milk.
And as Oliver remembers his father find love for the first time, he, himself, discovers love in the present. “Our good fortune allowed us the time to feel a sadness our parents didn’t have time to have and happiness that I never saw,” Oliver remarks about himself and Anna.
Anna and Oliver are beginners. Anna rollerblades with Oliver for the first time, and as they do so, their arms tilted sideways to hold their balance, they look almost like human fireworks. In a complementary scene, Hal and his friends light actual fireworks, jumping with exaltation and screaming expletives repeatedly. The entire cast of characters experiences happiness for the first time, or something like it.
Another beginning: Anna and Oliver sneak out in the middle of the night to graffiti huge public spaces. “2003: Britney Spears most Googled,” Oliver writes in spray paint on a large wall. It’s almost as if in his art and expression, in his history of sadness and in his vandalism, he finds a need to ascribe dates. Because in his personal life, his relationships are so interconnected that he struggles to pinpoint place and time.
In yet another act of graffiti vandalism, he writes to Anna, “You make me laugh but it’s not funny.” Anna and Oliver smile, laugh, and almost enjoy life. So does the viewer, as the bits of comedy are interspersed with serious moments, often provided by Oliver’s silent subtitled dialogues with his Jack Russell terrier, Arthur (Cosmo). The film is at times characterized by flamboyant levity, and at others, seriousness. Beneath the persistent laughter exists an inherent fear of love and change, a fear of running away from the ones we hold dear and beginning something new. “You can stay in one place and still find ways to leave people,” Oliver tells Anna, who is constantly moving because of her career as an actress.
Perhaps the most powerful aspects of the film are the voiceovers. Oliver’s voice accompanies the photographic montages, and often speaks as the filmgoer watches a silent scene. Sometimes, the scene is silent as classical music plays instead. The viewer thus gets the feeling of being in Oliver’s mind, of experiencing all of the characters exclusively as part of his sad memories, until all sound is replaced by overtures of music.
Towards the end of the movie, Oliver muses about a photograph that his mother left him—a hand presenting a bouquet of daisies. Although he always believed the hand was his own, offering the flowers to his mother, he now believes the hand is hers, trying to offer him simplicity and happiness which she never managed to give him.
The hand offering the daisies ultimately becomes the hand of the entire cast of actors, and the entire cast of people in life as a whole. The movie itself masquerades as a happy and simple film, but with serious lessons about life and love lurking just beneath the surface. We all want to live simply and happily, and yet, as Beginners so astutely observes, simple and happy is often unattainable. And so, we pretend. We pretend to be happy, we pretend to be simple, we pretend to be experienced. Yet it’s always an opportune time to start over, to re-experience, to recreate, to retell. 1955, 2003, 2011: Beginners reminds us that in the game of life, we’re all, indeed, beginners.
Beginners is now showing at independent movie theaters around New York City.