Film Review: Beginners (2011)

Beginners is a sweet tale of learning to pursue what makes you happy in life. Oliver Fields is our narrator, jumping through time over the past year to tell us the story of his dying father's last months on Earth. Hal Fields comes out of the closet late in life and finds the man of his dreams. While we learn the story of Hal's first true romance, we experience Oliver trying as hard as he can to overcome his childhood instinct that no relationship could ever be based in love and happiness. He meets a beautiful woman named Anna, with the help of his late father's dog Cosmo, and tries to build a worthwhile relationship. Beginners is not so much about the plot as it is about the psychology of the characters. The principle cast--Cosmo aside--has never allowed happiness to be an option in their lives. Oliver commits himself entirely to his work in the face of grief. Hal convinces himself that he can cure his homosexuality by being a good husband and father. Anna is constantly escaping her life in France by hopping from hotel to hotel all over the world. It is only when they open themselves up to chance that they finally start to explore the possibility of true happiness.

Writer/director Mike Mills (Thumbsucker) crafts a tight screenplay using a loose narrative structure. Though the film jumps in time, the beats of the narrative and character development are placed with precision for the benefit of this film. It's not a traditional structure; it's the structure that works best for Beginners. It takes a strong writer to build a screenplay that works without the go-to three act structure and Mills does it with style.

There are recurring devices that help shape the narrative. Oliver will give a historical voice-over to a series of images. "This is the president, this is what a man looks like, this is where a gay man could have sex, this is what sadness looks like," all said in the context of the year being discussed. It flows naturally because Oliver is a graphic designer. His studio is filled with images on inspiration boards. Another device is his constant sketching of representations of his emotional state under the guise of work. The device turns into a subplot connected to how he's functioning at work in relationship to his growth as a person.

Perhaps the most effective device is Cosmo. Cosmo is a Jack Russell Terrier. Oliver states in one of the first scenes the purpose Cosmo will serve in the film. Essentially, Cosmo acts as a criticism of the cute dog distraction in sitcoms and films by showing multiple ways a dog can be used to advance a narrative. The most blatant is Cosmo's speech, presented in subtitles on the screen. Sometimes it's used as a joke. Other times, Cosmo's speech is a reflection of Oliver's inner thought process.

Cosmo from Beginners

The other uses of Cosmo are more impressive. Cosmo has an actual personality beyond "cute puppy." He's grieving the loss of his late friend Hal and has severe separation anxiety if he's not with someone who loved Hal. It is only because Cosmo has to come to a costume party that Oliver meets Anna.

Cosmo becomes an omnipresent extension of Hal's advice to Oliver throughout the film. If a dying man can come to terms with finding someone who makes him happy, why can't his thirty-something son do the same? Cosmo is constantly nipping at his heels and pushing Oliver into strange new territory. The unspoken influence of the dog replaces the traditional need for a best friend or relative offering advice at every juncture. It flows organically because people don't always have another person to guide them in life. Cosmo is Oliver, his memories, and his father wrapped up into a furry little ball that may or may not develop the ability to communicate directly with the people who love him.

It doesn't hurt that Arthur (Cosmo) and his trainer Matilda de Cagney do amazing work with tricks, sight-lines, and general demeanor on set. Also, Arthur is an adorable little dog that the cast clearly grew fond of. That always helps. When in doubt, close-up on the adorable wire-haired terrier.

Ewan McGregor (Oliver), Melanie Laurent (Anna), and Christopher Plummer (Hal) do great work in this film. Mike Mills gave them a screenplay filled with richly developed characters and they went to town with them. Plummer's character is the flashiest (and easiest awards magnet) and he really sells the progression, but McGregor and Laurent are at the same level. It's one of those situations where if the main love interest wasn't believable, the film would completely fall apart. You wouldn't notice the actors playing Oliver and Anna unless they were doing horrible work onscreen. Their chemistry is perfect.

Beginners might stray a bit too quirky for more traditional romantic drama fan. However, for those willing to embrace a slightly skewed universe where dogs can communicate directly and history is framed by rapid fire photographs, Beginners is a beautifully realized exploration of what it means to be happy.

Rating: 8/10

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

The Link Rally: 20 December 2011

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