There’s a scene in director Mike Mills’ new drama Beginners featuring the child version of Ewan McGregor’s character Oliver and his mother, played by Mary Page Keller. Oliver’s mother tells him to go in his room when he’s feeling emotional and scream – “It’s cathartic,” she explains. He stands in silence in his room for a few moments and then walks back out to his mother. “I don’t feel like screaming,” he tells her. This scene is important to remember, because the film revolves around withholding our emotions and what it can lead to.
McGregor’s Oliver is a 38-year-old artist dealing with two big relationships – one with his dying father Hal (Christopher Plummer), who came out of the closet after Oliver’s mother died, and another with a young French actress named Anna (Mélanie Laurent), whom Oliver falls for.
The film opens at a point after most films usually stop. Hal has died from cancer and Oliver is throwing away his medicine and other possessions. We then see him on the beach, shooting off fireworks with Hal’s friends as a memorial service of sorts. Hal’s lover, Andy (Goran Visnjic), is an aspiring pyrotechnician or something, so he’s handy with explosions. It isn’t long before we flash back to a time when Hal was still alive. At one point early in the film, Oliver mentions that, after his mother got sick, she sort of skipped around in time in her head, implying that she had Alzheimer’s or dementia. Similarly, the film itself is nonlinear and skips around in time quite a bit. We see Oliver after Hal has died, we see him while Hal is still living, we see Oliver as a young boy visiting museums with his mother. This technique could have been jarring, but Mills pulls it off with quirky and artistic flair.
The core of the film is Hal and his relationship with Oliver. The older man represents what happens when we deny ourselves that catharsis. He spent most of his life and his entire marriage repressing and withholding his true feelings and emotions. A scene where Hal and Oliver talk about Oliver’s mother is painful, with Hal assuring Oliver that he truly did love his mother. Plummer is great as Hal, managing to produce both a restrained acceptance of the man’s fate and an embrace of what remains of his new life.
Oliver’s relationship with Anna is just as interesting. They meet at a costume party and hit it off that night. I'd like to point out that someone was bound to fall for Oliver – he had his dog with him, looked sad, was emotionally vulnerable, and he was dressed like old Dr. Sigmund Freud (we find out later that Anna has some daddy issues of her own). Inglorious Basterds’ Laurent gets another opportunity to feature in some pretty emotional scenes in this role, and she’s perfect.
I said that the film is about two big relationships, but there’s a third that’s pretty important too. After Hal died, Oliver inherited his co-dependent Jack Russell, the dog he brings to the costume party (and everywhere else). A big part of the film is how we don’t communicate with others, and ourselves, and oddly enough, Oliver’s dog talks occasionally throughout the film via subtitles. Although Oliver seems to understand him at times, I think the dog represents the fear of expresssing oneself. Another example of this is the fact that Anna pretended to have laryngitis when she first met Oliver at the costume party.
The idea that we have to live a certain way is prevalent in the film, and I’m not just talking about Hal’s marriage. As an artist, Oliver is known for his portraits, but he struggles throughout the film to find acceptance for the sad art that he’s passionate about. The past is a boulder weighing down on us in one of his drawings. Oliver also tells his dog that the only reason that he wants to chase tennis balls is because he was bred that way – someone put the desire to chase foxes in his brain long ago. “You chase tennis balls because it’s as close to the fox as you’re gonna get,” he tells him.
Oliver’s relationship with Anna throughout the film seemed to represent his father’s own relationship with Oliver’s mother. Anna meets Oliver when he’s disguised at the costume party, and I saw that as similar to his father wearing a “disguise” as a straight man. Anna knew that Oliver ended all of his previous relationships, much like Oliver’s mother knew that his father was gay but thought she could change him. The viewer starts to wonder if Oliver and Anna are destined to end up like their parents, plagued by a lack of communication. Anna’s father similarly doesn’t communicate with his wife, choosing instead to burden his daughter with disturbing thoughts that I won't reveal here.
The film is actually based on Mills' own experiences after his father came out of the closet at 75, and the director handles the issues gay men and women face with respect and compassion. The pain of trying to “cure” yourself – Hal mentions that he would have tried anything back when he and Oliver’s mother first got engaged. The dread Andy feels over alienating or threatening straight men like Oliver.
We can struggle a long time to achieve catharsis, sometimes all of our lives. In a scene towards the end of the film, Oliver, Hal and a group of friends are shooting off some of Andy’s fireworks. Remember that Hal’s wife thought she could change him, and stop him from being gay, but she couldn’t. She assumed he was the least emotional in the family, but we see Hal at the end of the film being more emotional and free than ever. He finally got out from under the boulder. Oliver is impressed and overwhelmed by the fireworks and lets out a long and resounding “Fuck!” The others join in, and the scene ends with Hal and Oliver screaming together, smiles on their faces.