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Film review: Beginners

27th July 2011

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‘What is 'Real'? Does it hurt?’ At the time that the first openly gay politician Harvey Milk is shot, Oliver’s dad (Christopher Plummer) sets up an exhibition in his museum using these quotes from The Velveteen Rabbit. After keeping up appearances for 44 years, he finally comes out of the closet after his wife’s death. Not much later, after having explored the gay scene and having found a young lover, he is diagnosed with terminal cancer.

BeginnersBeginners, Mike Mills’ new production, is in essence a happy film, despite its heavy themes. Oliver (Ewan McGregor) cleans out his fathers’ house, adopts his dog, and meets a new girl. As he is trying to pick up his life after his loss, he is reminded of how his father picked up a new life aged 72, with ups and downs but endless delight in life.  Oliver himself never had a very positive outlook on life, and as we see more of his childhood it becomes clear why. Mary Page Keller, who plays his mother, only needs a few scenes to set out a wonderfully dynamic woman, strangled by the cordialness of her husband. It is clear that his parents are both damaged by the marriage, and it is not surprising that Oliver has always found a way to get out of his relationships.

The new girl he meets is Anna (Mélanie Laurent), a French actress who is very dazzling when they meet but slowly fades into black. She comes with her own issues, which are never really explained, which makes the characters in the film a bit unbalanced. As she gets to know Oliver, we learn more about his past and his relationship with his father, with the scenes between the two men being the highlights of the film.

The pace skips from calmly developed scenes to quicker bits with archive pictures and drawings, as the film jumps through time and explores different attitudes towards beauty and happiness. All the requisite features for an indie romcom are there: quirky hobbies (roller skating and graffiti), funny tricks (the dog has its own subtitles) and plenty of homemade drawings (Oliver is a graphic artist). Despite some of the developments being somewhat hard to follow, the film never ceases to amaze in its little tender moments. Funny, sad, and very real.

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