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24 July 2011

Absolute Beginners

The eponymous beginners in Mike Mills' new film Beginners are Oliver Fields (Ewan McGregor), his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) and Anna (Mélanie Laurent). Between them they are just starting out at many things--relationships, falling in love, being gay, dying--but mainly at being happy and true to themselves. It's a funny film, mainly in the odd sense of the word, although there are plenty of funny moments mixed in with the sadder, more poignant scenes. It is, primarily, a film populated with lonely, self-reliant people (what with Crash and, er, In a Lonely Place, one would think it isn't possible to live in LA and have a good network of friends).

The film's chronology jumps around quite a bit from 2003 (when, soon after his father has just died from cancer, Oliver meets and falls in love with Anna, a lonely French actress) to five years earlier (when Oliver's mother has just died and his father decides it's finally time for him to come out of the closet, go clubbing and get a boyfriend), to Oliver's childhood, where the emotions of his sad, lonely mother clearly made a lasting impact. Present-day Oliver is definitely very lonely. He works as an illustrator but has a habit of letting his clients down by bringing too much melancholy into his drawings--a band who just wanted their portraits for the album cover are presented with a 20 page fold-out booklet illustrating the history of sadness in the universe. He clears out his father's apartment, adopts Hal's lonely dog, Arthur, to whom he often talks (Arthur's "responses," which appear as text on the screen provide some of the film's funniest moments), and he doesn't have many friends. His few serious relationships failed because, as he later tells Anna, he never thought they would work out and so he made them fail.

But then he meets Anna at a party and finds a kindred spirit. Anna is a French actress stuck in LA and doomed to a life of travelling from hotel to hotel, never feeling like she is at home and always having to leave people behind (as Oliver puts it, "you don't have to keep leaving to leave people behind"). And slowly, they realise they can trust each other and that relying on someone else isn't a bad thing.

Back in 1998, Oliver can hardly believe it when his dad comes out. "But you and mom were married for 44 years. Didn't you love each other?" he asks. "Of course I loved her," he replies, "and I loved you and my job and our house and my life." But that wasn't the point. He had always known he was gay and when he married Georgia in 1955, she gave up the idea of marrying a Jewish man and he gave up a part of himself that he thought he could manage without. After Georgia's death, Hal starts dating Andy, a much younger man, who is about the same age as Oliver.

The characters are all on a hard and complex journey but at least they have one another along the way. They learn from one other too. Soon after they meet, Oliver and Anna go for a drive. "I'l drive, you point directions," he says. Later we see that Oliver's quirky mother used to do this with him when he was a kid. They borrow from one another to feel connected or maybe because it's the only way they know. With great acting from the three leads, Beginners is a warm, sensitive and quirky film, which adroitly handles several difficult topics. I highly recommend it.

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