“Beginners” (2010 production, 2011 release). Cast: Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Mélanie Laurent, Goran Visnjic, Kai Lennox, Mary Page Keller, Keegan Boos, China Shavers, Cosmo. Director: Mike Mills. Screenplay: Mike Mills. http://focusfeatures.com/beginners
Love can be a funny thing. Sometimes it feels like it tricks us, at other times it seems like it hides from us and at still other times it cleverly camouflages itself while audaciously parading itself around right before our eyes. But as much as we might like to think it’s some capricious force outside our control, it’s always something that manifests based on what we think and feel about it, a notion explored in the new indie film, “Beginners.”
Oliver, a soft-spoken, middle-aged graphic artist (Ewan McGregor), has a dilemma: he can’t seem to fall—or, more precisely, stay—in love. He’s mystified by how he can be so utterly clueless about something supposedly so common (but that nevertheless always seems to elude him). He seems reconciled to being single, his social life consisting mostly of occasional contact with a few friends and his aging widowed father, Hal (Christopher Plummer).
That all changes, however, when Hal dies. Even though Oliver was an only child and somewhat accustomed to being by himself, it’s only after his dad passes on that he finally finds himself truly alone, and it’s in that stony silence of solitude that he must come to terms with his life, particularly where love and relationships are concerned; after all, he now no longer has what little family he did have to fall back on.
Ironic is it might seem, being alone provides Oliver with a propitious opportunity to assess where he’s at, how he got there and whether he wants to stay. Through flashbacks, Oliver reflects on how his younger self (Keegan Boos) grew up without siblings, as well as on the often-lonely life of his mother, Georgia (Mary Page Keller), who quietly but desperately endured her husband’s frequent, protracted and largely unexplained absences. Such circumstances did much to shape Oliver’s outlook during childhood, contributing significantly to the beliefs he formed that he would later use to create the life he experienced as an adult. Being on one’s own (i.e., without the benefit of meaningful personal relationships), it would seem, was how Oliver believed life was to be led.
In the course of his reflection, Oliver also flashes back to the recent past and his life with Hal after Georgia died, a time when he finally got to know his dad, almost from scratch. It was also a time when Hal made the bold decision to come out of the closet. At age 75, he believed it was finally time to explore an aspect of his sexuality that he had long kept submerged, a decision that liberated him from a self-imposed prison of anguish and loneliness. For the first time in many years, Hal was truly happy, making many new friends and even becoming involved with a young lover (Goran Visnjic). However, as pleased as Oliver was for his dad, he was also somewhat confused by Hal’s decision; after all, given the beliefs that Oliver had apparently (but unconsciously) formed during his upbringing about love, happiness and relationships, his father’s new behavior ran counter to virtually everything he had come to believe about such matters. How was Oliver to reconcile these new ideas with those he had embraced for so long?
While Hal may have been late in coming to the conclusion that life was meant to be enjoyed and not just endured, he relished it for all it was worth once he did so. But his purpose behind this was meant to accomplish more than just fulfilling his own happiness; it was also meant to serve as an example to his long-suffering son that he, too, should enjoy life while he had the chance, shedding his cloak of despair for one of joy—especially in matters of the heart.
And so reconciling these opposing sets of beliefs is Oliver’s challenge as he moves forward in life on his own. Oliver quickly gets tested on this, too, when he meets Anna (Mélanie Laurent), an actress who, not unlike him, seems to be carrying her own share of relationship baggage. The big question for Oliver is, now that he has a chance at genuine happiness, which set of beliefs will he draw upon to guide him—those of his childhood or those of his recent past?
Oliver’s story effectively illustrates one of the most crucial aspects of the conscious creation process, namely, the power of beliefs in shaping the reality we create and subsequently experience. Throughout much of the film, we witness the protagonist struggling to identify and understand what makes himself tick and how the beliefs he holds manifest the existence in which he finds himself. His musings about how life works are routinely put on display for all to see, and, from this, it’s no wonder that his reality has unfolded in the way it has. For better or worse, there’s clearly tremendous power at work here, even if it isn’t always obvious to the one wielding it.
What’s more, through Oliver’s childhood flashbacks, we see how his experience framed the beliefs that went into shaping his worldview, not only at that time but also onward into adulthood. This illustrates the persistence of our beliefs, and, when you combine that trait with the power with which they’re imbued, it’s easy to see what a potent role they play in materializing the existence we experience. Even those who might be skeptical of the metaphysical aspects at work here can see, from a psychological standpoint, how Oliver’s upbringing molded an outlook that would carry on long afterward, validating the contention of many psychological professionals that our personal programming for life is set at an early age. In the end, though, no matter what lens one uses to view this situation, it’s apparent that beliefs are powerful and persistent forces indeed.
By extension, these aspects of Oliver’s story also point to the powers of choice and change available to him, should he choose to exercise them. These powers are always available to him (and to us), but we often lose sight of them, leading us to believe that we’re locked into intractable positions. It’s at times like that when we could use a catalyst to shake us out of our complacency, to encourage us to exercise our power of choice to make changes that allow us to create anew. In Oliver’s case, Hal serves as a catalyst to spur him on to new vistas, while Anna functions as a mirror to reflect where his mindset is at (and where it’s likely to stay unless he’s willing to make some much-needed changes). It’s interesting to note how Oliver draws these catalysts to him just when he needs them most, not only to encourage him to make changes for himself but also to prompt him to become more conscious of how the choices he makes, based on the beliefs he holds, result in the reality he experiences. In essence, that’s putting the “conscious” in conscious creation.
While “Beginners” conveys many nice sentiments and effectively illustrates some key conscious creation principles, as a piece of filmmaking, however, it has a number of flaws. The picture’s overall tone is reminiscent of a Woody Allen film, but it’s not as skillfully crafted, largely due to its many uneven qualities. Its script is somewhat gimmicky, employing storytelling elements that seem needlessly forced, and its narrative is at times unfocused, taking viewers off on tangents that never get fully fleshed out or sufficiently explained. The pacing is unbalanced, too, with some sequences flowing well and others, such as Oliver’s courtship of Anna, getting needlessly bogged down in unnecessary pregnant pauses and self-indulgent emoting. These issues are exacerbated by some dreadful miscasting, particularly Laurent and, to a lesser degree, McGregor. Thankfully, Plummer is in top form, giving another stellar performance (certainly worthy of awards consideration), as is his canine co-star, Cosmo, who plays Hal’s adorable sidekick, Arthur. All in all, the combination makes for a mixed bag, one that had a lot of potential but came up short in the execution.
“Beginners” is also a victim of some misleading movie marketing, a trend that, sadly, seems to be growing these days. The film’s trailer makes the picture look like a somewhat offbeat but cute romantic comedy. Far from it. While the movie does have its humorous moments and some light, bouncy sequences, its subject matter is mostly serious, at times downright heavy, very different from what its promotional material might lead one to believe. At a time when movie ticket sales are flagging, studios and distributors need to tread carefully in how they market their products; too many viewer disappointments could lead to an audience backlash that filmmakers can ill afford these days.
It may never be too late for love, even for those unaccustomed to it. It’s unfortunate, however, that this message wasn’t conveyed as effectively as it could have been through this film.
Copyright © 2011, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.