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Beginners

a film by Mike Mills

With a surprisingly European sensibility to it, Mike Mills' Beginners is a thoughtful, perplexing look at life, death and the idea of redemption. Starring Ewan McGregor as a man who finds out, a few years after his mother dies, that his 75 year old father is gay, Beginners is a quiet, disarming film that shuffles back and forth between the final months of his out and finally happy elderly father and the present day and a budding relationship with a young French actress, with a smoothness not usually seen in a filmmaker with such little filmmaking experience (one previous feature and a few video shorts). The film may not be great (rather very good if one is checkpointing cheap summations) but it surely is a great surprise nonetheless.

Akin in many of its more melancholy moments to Sofia Coppola's undeservedly maligned film Somewhere, Mills, whose only previous feature film experience was as director on 2005's Thumbsucker, makes his film not only about a man's loss of spirit and eventual rebirth, but also about the magic in the ordinary - about those moments of brief sudden happiness amidst the sadness of life. Like I said, surprisingly European sensibility. If these characters were not speaking English (Laurent of course does toss in some of her native French) one could easily mistake Beginners for something out of modern French cinema - and not to diss American cinema nor overly praise European (there is both gold and crap in both), I mean this in the most complimentary way.

With moments of unspoken character development (a thing that has kept the average mainstream moviegoer at arm's length) this cast, the aforementioned McGregor and Laurent, and Christopher Plummer in the plummest of roles as McGregor's out and proud father (as well as a Jack Russell who gets his own dialogue through subtitles), are quietly and (here's that word again) disarmingly frank in their way of dealing with one another. Deceptively empty, this film is filled to the veritable rim with the most subtle of overflowing emotion - both happy and tragic. We know from the beginning that Plummer's aged new gay man will die (in unique voiceover/monologue - replete with visual asides to explain the various time periods - by McGregor) and this will colour our interpretation of the films events weaving through time and space as it were. In some ways this predisposed knowledge makes the film's tragedies even more tragic than they would otherwise be. Like I said, surprisingly European indeed. [07/26/11]

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