Mike Mills’ Beginners is an exploration of what influences our lives. In this film the primary influence being our parents. The film does not explore the concepts between nature and nurture, but focuses fully on how our parents can screw us up. I’m not sure that was the intent of the film, but that is how it comes across. Beginners follows the story of thirty-eight year old Oliver Fields (Ewan McGregor), who is coming to terms with the death of his father (Christopher Plummer). Fields has been unable to form any meaningful romantic relationships throughout his adult life. When he meets Anna (Melanie Laurent) shortly after his father’s death, he tries to figure out how to overcome his romantic shortcomings. He ponders the effect his parents had on his adulthood as he enters into this new relationship. The film suffers a lack of focus as it sidesteps the deeper issues in favor of endless pontification.
Beginners tells it’s story in a fractured narrative jumping back and forth between the aftermath of Fields’ father’s death, and his memories of the final few years of his father’s life. At the root of Fields’ fear of romantic relationships is the loveless marriage between his own parents. Shortly after his mother’s death, Fields’ father revealed that he was gay. It was a fact Fields’ mother was fully aware of, but it is unknown to Fields’ the exact reasons why she entered into such a marriage. What Fields’ knew growing up was that his parents had no real passion for each other. His mother dragged him around to various art museums and basically used him as an emotional surrogate for her husband. His parents respected one another and cared for one another the way friends do, but they did not have true soul mate kind of love.
Is it that lack of example the cause of Fields’ romantic difficulties? Beginners seems to point to that conclusion. Anna seems to be Fields’ soul mate, though there is no real chemistry. The film basically shows us all the typical clichés. They enjoy walking through the park, and are completely comfortable just hanging out. That is a downside to the film. We don’t really get to know the characters in a satisfying way. Anna is an actress who does everything to avoid her father. Fields is a graphic designer who is trying to hang on to his father’s memory. Why do they connect? It’s hard to say. I suppose that could be a reflection of real life, but it is not very interesting storytelling.
One of the best aspects of the film is Fields’ relationship with his father’s dog. Fields takes in the dog after his father’s death and the dog serves as the link to their relationship. The dog also “talks” to Fields via subtitles that represent the dog’s thoughts. It’s a nice surreal touch. What’s missing from Beginners is exploration. The issue of his father’s homosexuality is that it’s not really an issue. It’s hard to believe a thirty-eight year old man wouldn’t have difficulty finding out his father was not who he thought he was. His acceptance of his father’s new lifestyle and boyfriends was too easy to be interesting. It’s not that he should have been against it, but anyone would be taken aback by such a revelation.
What is most disappointing about Beginners is that they could have gotten so much more from the actors. Christopher Plummer is a great actor. Melanie Laurent gave a fine performance in Inglourious Basterds, but she is nearly wasted in this movie. Ewan McGregor is a fine actor. However, despite an expansive filmography, he has unfortunately never been able to find a role as dynamic as his breakout performance in 1996’s Trainspotting. All of these actors could have brought much more gravitas if they had really been able to dig into the issues presented in the film. Instead Beginners is pretty boring and morose. As much as I wanted to like it, I didn’t find this film to be enjoyable at all.
The Blu-ray is presented in 1080p/VC-1 encoded transfer. The detail is very good. Everything has a kind of stark reality. The color palette of the film leans toward the dull rather than the vibrant, but that is by design. Skin tones look natural, and the contract is realistic. The sound is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. This film is about minimalism and the soundtrack is no exception. The rear speakers are used primarily for ambient noise. Many conversations are held in hushed or quiet tones, and they are easy to understand. The score sounds bright and does not overpower the rest of the soundtrack. The special features include an audio commentary with writer/director Mike Mills and a short film about the movie. The short film is an interesting piece about Mills and his decision to make this movie, which is semi-autobiographical.