"I'd wait for the lion"
We all have chapters in our lives ripe for rebirth. Check-stops on the journey through the years alter us irrevocably, making us begin anew in desperation to leave the old behind. Sometimes these epiphanies happen when we are young, some when old. But no matter the place on your own personal timeline, each moment is marked by the world surrounding you. And while the details of the things going on at that time resemble the ones in the past and future, they are never quite the same.
There was a president in 1935 as well as 2003, but they were not the same. Kissing, nature, the sun, and the stars all exist through time, but the evolution of each alters them ever so slightly. We can immortalize moments with photos, documents, and cutouts—actually put time in a bottle to look back on and discover the influences in our lives. Whether those memories helped shape us for the better or worse, however, our future is never fully written. We all become beginners again as we reinvent, improve, and simply keep on living.
Mike Mills seems to enjoy the theme of isolation and the coming-of-age within it. His debut film Thumbsucker gave an indie look into the eccentricities of a young boy growing up and his newest, Beginners, picks up right where he left off. Telling the story of a 38-year old artist who has sabotaged every relationship he’s ever had, we enter this man’s quirky life to see why. By ruffling through his snapshots of history—the historical consciousness mixed with his own specifics—we begin to understand what has made Oliver (Ewan McGregor) so serious.
You wouldn’t know he grew up in a household built on the foundation of marriage between a man and a woman in love. On the surface—and to a boy uneducated in the intricacies of life—all one can see is cold detachment. His father Hal (Christopher Plummer) leaves each day to go to work as a museum curator by giving his wife Georgia (Mary Page Keller) a peck on the cheek. Oliver sees the exercise as futile, devoid of passion. We never see Hal’s face in these early flashbacks, his inclusion minimal during the boy’s formidable years. All we get is the look of disappointment and sadness wrought on Georgia’s face, her whimsical games of make-believe trying to deflect the anguish so apparent.
And this is the charm of Beginners, it’s authentic whimsy coupled with realistic sadness. We see the escapades of mother and son, the faux death scenes from a finger-mimed gun blast and the journeys to the patriarch’s art openings filled with a desire to cut through the pomp and circumstance with a bit of levity. But this isn’t enough for Oliver since he only sees the mask of happiness on his mother and the lack of acceptance the world his father exists in gives her. So the boy cultivates these same mechanisms, creating a life of interior fun despite his dour demeanor never letting him be truly funny.
He creates a life as a pen and ink artist, that sense of whimsy intact in the visuals while the depressive outlook on life remains thematically. This is what he knew and there was no way around it until the death of his mother from cancer. At this point, his eyes are opened with the loss of the parent closest to him and the introduction to the one he never knew he had. As soon as Georgia is gone, Hal finds the courage and the ability to be who he is—gay. Now warm, approachable, and full of life in his mid-70s, this man can show his son what love is. All those years of cold cheek pecks dissolve from the jubilant love with Andy (Goran Visnjic), his new boyfriend. Unfortunately, though, this rejuvenation for Hal only lasts four years before cancer also takes him away.
Starting two months after the passing of his father, the film shows us a man with a quirky personality. Oliver talks to the family dog as well as inanimate objects such as his house, but such awkwardness is intriguing rather than off-putting or contrived. He is at a crossroads, more alone than he had ever been. It was one thing to get through his parent’s marriage and the detached mindset created, causing him to leave every women he’s ever been with because he never knew what love felt like to know he had it, but a completely different thing to exist after seeing the joy of Hal and Andy. With that gone, Oliver is truly devastated and left to believe he was right all along to think nothing lasts.
In his stupor of self-pity and depression, however, he is able to meet a kindred soul. At her own fork in the road and devoid of speech from laryngitis, an actress named Anna (Mélanie Laurent) approaches him at a costume party after noticing his sadness through a façade of humor. They both see a bit of themselves in each other and a way to enter into a relationship based on a love neither knew possible. Their courtship is a new lease on life, a new chapter to traverse together. They no longer have to be alone and hopefully can use their experiences as a guide to overcome his never having been shown healthy love and her lack of a home.
While this is the main crux, however, there is so much else going on. Oliver is finding himself by engaging in late-night graffiti tagging with friend Elliot (Kai Lennox) and accepting his inability to cater to clients wanting soulless portraits rather than art. The memories of his father’s final years are also a huge part of his metamorphosis—Hal’s own rebirth allowing Oliver to experience feelings he never knew existed. He watches his father become a three-dimensional person for the first time in seventy plus years and realizes he too may have a chance to one day do the same. Because the grand revelation here is in seeing just how much like his parents Oliver is, constantly wanting to play like them in their own way—the whimsy of his mother and the artistic flair of his father, a man who even rewrote the death of Jesus as it was just too violent.
We swim through Mills’ own flourishes of childlike joy to discover these characters, each performance magnificent it their subtly and nuance. With roller skating trips through hotel room corridors, late night conversations about life, and the pithy wisdom of a Jack Russell terrier, we experience the rebirth of humanity. No one is stuck without release; we all have the capacity to be better if we aspire to be so. Sometimes a kick in the pants is needed to start the journey, a glimpse into what it is we seek but don’t realize until its introduction. Everyone looks for the lion and although some think they settle for the giraffe when all dreams of bliss seem shot, the lucky few realize it was the giraffe they wanted all along.