Starting over isn’t easy. Most of us live with wreckage in our heads. The calamities of the past don’t just get up and walk away; they hang around, like unwanted tenants, drumming on your skull. That’s why people who say “it’s never too late” should be strangled with rainbows. Any trite response should be met with force. As adults, we need to reconcile ourselves with mountains. That takes some doing. Only incipient people can change without stress. For those who’ve lived, change can feel like you’re unravelling. Mike Mills’ new movie, Beginners, is about adults stumbling into a new phase of their lives. They stumble because they’re not ignorant of history. Their new lives are always mindful of the past.
Oliver Fields is a graphic artist in his thirties. His father, Hal Fields, comes out of the closet after Oliver’s mother dies. Hal is seventy five, and not only is he gay, but he intends to do something about it. He thrusts himself into a gay lifestyle with a vigour that Oliver has never known. Father and son have been passing acquaintances until now, but with Hal’s sudden rejuvenation, Oliver feels at a loss. The younger man is timid by nature, reserved almost to the point of stasis. He’s grown up in a house where love was concealed. Now love is marked by florid expression. Even when Hal is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he still brims with joy unto death. Oliver, like Charles Dickens’ famous orphan, needs to ask for more.
In interviews, Mike Mills has spoken about “historical consciousness”, the idea that personal stories must be set in context; that no-one exists outside of history. This theme is reflected in Beginners through the use of slide-shows. At certain points, the action literally stops in the movie for Ewan McGregor to narrate a series of photographs: “This is 2003. This is what the sun looks like, and the stars. This is the president. And this is the sun in 1955, and the stars, and the president.” On-screen, we see a black-and-white sun – and fewer stars – in the past. But of course, the sky hasn’t changed; it’s the way we view it. So too, being gay in 1955. It presents a different picture. By viewing Hal’s story as a vignette, as part of a shift in the wider world; Mills removes the risk of seeming cute. He’s not interested in writing an episode of Friends.
However, if I’ve given the impression that the movie is a po-faced history lecture, perhaps it’s time I mentioned the talking dog. No review of Beginners would be complete without Arthur, the Jack Russell terrier who acts as boon companion to Oliver, and objective correlative for the film. Arthur doesn’t speak, exactly. He has sub-titles. In times of uncertainty, Ewan McGregor looks to him for guidance, and, being a dog, Arthur is able to say a great deal with a look. He’s the objective correlative in Beginners because he’s a seeker. The whole movie says: it’s wrong to hide. Dogs don’t find misery acceptable. Why should we? All pets remind us to take pleasure in life.
Oliver’s mother, alas, is a sad case. No doubt, everyone will focus on Christopher Plummer when it comes to plaudits, but the real heart-breaker is Mary Page Keller. In flashbacks, we see a wry, intelligent woman who’s adrift in a loveless marriage. It’s from her that Oliver gets his imagination. Like a lot of lonely people, she’s good at daydreams. She gives Oliver pointers on how to die properly when she mimes shooting him. She encourages him to scream when he feels frustrated. And she’s a good mother, even when she’s pissed at the world. Oliver is so in love with her, in fact, she may be the reason his relationships don’t work. She gave up on romantic love. Now her son thinks he doesn’t deserve it.
“What is REAL?” asks the Velveteen Rabbit (as narrated, in the movie, by Ewan McGregor). “Does it happen all at once, or bit by bit?” The answer is: “Once you are REAL, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” As sentimental as that quote might be, it does sum up a hard truth. Those of us who fake like we are happy will be sad for most of our lives. As we get older, it’s easy to pretend. But no matter how old you are, you can be real, if you choose to be. Honesty starts with saying: this is who I am. In Beginners, a man waits till he’s seventy five to be honest. He lies for years. Then history offers him a chance. The message of this film is not to wait, but to be ready. Old habits be damned.