13 September, 2010
by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor
The courage to live one's truth....that is the potent theme of BEGINNERS, an emotional drama that had its world premiere on Saturday evening at the Toronto International Film Festival. American director Mike Mills, who made an assured debut in 2005 with the festival hit THUMBSUCKER handily mixes comedy and tragedy and guides his cast of top flight actors to convincing and moving performances.
Drawing on his own background as a graphic designer and artist who has exhibited extensively in the US and Europe, Mills juggles two storylines that, in the best filmic tradition, eventually intertwine, and in the process, becomes the catalyst for vital life lessons. Ewan McGregor toplines as Oliver, a rootless, rather odd, cartoonist who lives mostly in his head and connects with the world through his ironic illustrations. Two recent major events in his life have turned his rather solitary world on its head and force the opening of his heart.
Juggling two chronologies, the first follows the slow-burning deterioration of Oliver's father, who is dying of lung cancer. Sobering as that is, it also is accompanied with the news that his father, at the tender age of 75, has decided to come out as gay. His newly found gay freedom (as showcased in his new wardrobe, new boyfriend and a new outlook on life) provides some of the comic helium in the film. The fact that the father is played by Christopher Plummer, one of Canada's great acting treasures, gives the character a depth and solidity that would be lost with a lesser presence.
Oliver is rather comfortable with this news and the film offers telling flashbacks to his early family life, when his museum curator father was mainly absent and he spent time with his emotionally complex and seemingly damaged mother. He begins to understand that his father has been gay all along but like many of his generation, attempted to set up house with a woman and have a family, although the emotional investment was never fully there.
Understanding the falsity at the heart of his parents' marriage has made Oliver a loser at love, a likeable and attractive guy who has had relationships with women in the past, but who never could believe that they would last. This wound, borne from his innate understanding of the tension and emotional distance in his won parents' union, is put to the test when he meets a dazzling and beautiful French actress, who is in Los Angeles for just a brief time on a film shoot, living rather rootlessly herself in a fancy hotel room. As played by Melanie Laurent (the blond Jewish movie theater owner in Quentin Tarantino's INGLORIOUS BASTERDS), she is all quirky in an endearing European sense and sexually ripe.....a perfect compliment to Oliver's intense and brooding personality.
McGregor and Laurent have terrific on-screen chemistry and their budding romance is contrasted nicely with the inherent dignity of Plummer's performance. In a scenario that could have seemed contrived with lesser talents involved, the father's late-in-life determination to live life honestly is the valuable legacy that he is finally able to leave to the son that he has somewhat neglected in the past. By motivating him to surpass his self-prescribed limitations, he has taught his son (and us, by extension) that life demands our courage and strength and that honesty breeds its own rewards.
With its smart script that never goes for the easy laugh or the ready tear, BEGINNERS is ultimately a valentine to the art of acting and the artistic ambitions of its talented writer/director.