SXSW Review: ‘Beginners’ Beats You Over the Head With Its Indie Film Quirks

By  · Published on March 25th, 2011

Film festivals always seem to end up with a few paint by numbers indie films. Throw in an angsty 30-something unhappy with his life, an awkward relationship with a cute girl and a few gay characters and you have Beginners, or any number of other quirky indie dramedies you might have seen. Despite a pretty stellar cast including Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer and Melanie Laurent, Mike Mills’s movie is a bland and pretentious film that doesn’t add up to much.

The film focuses primarily on McGregor’s Oliver, the aforementioned angsty 30-something who’s been thrown into a bit of an existential crisis by the last few years of his father’s life. After the death of his mother, his father Hal finally has the courage to tell Oliver that he’s gay and has been his whole life. With no one to embarrass or disappoint with his true self, Hal lives his remaining few years out in the open enjoying and celebrating who he is, dating a much younger man while organizing parties and pride marches and letter writing campaigns to right wing politicians. But eventually Hal succumbs to the cancer that has riddled his body and the party is over. The film begins with Oliver cleaning out his father’s stuff after his death, but a good portion of the story takes place in flashbacks showing Hal’s last few years as well as some of Oliver’s childhood and his relationship with his mother.
Oliver forms a strong bond with his father’s dog, going so far as to take the dog along when his friend’s drag him to a costume party. At the party he meets the beautiful but enigmatic Anna, played by Melanie Laurent. Despite Anna’s refusal to speak and insistence on communicating solely through written responses, Oliver falls for her. The film then proceeds to cut back and forth between Oliver and Anna’s budding relationship and flashbacks of Oliver taking care of his father during his last few years.

McGregor and Laurent put in decent if unremarkable work, but Plummer in particular puts in a good performance as Oliver’s father, capturing the excitement of a man finally able to live as himself and the heartbreak of knowing he only has a short time left to live that way.

The film does offer some genuinely touching emotional moments, but they’re overshadowed by art film drivel. There are several sequences of McGregor narrating dryly over still photos saying “This is 2003. This is what happiness looks like in 2003. This is what nature looks like. This is the President.” Over and over, these extended sequences bog down the film and ruin any good will that the decent scenes may have built up. When discussing Hal’s cancer, they mention that when it first appeared it was the size of penny. As if Final Cut had a button for unnecessary visual aides, a black screen appears with a picture of a penny that calls to mind the words “clip art.” And then there are more pennies and rows of pennies as if the audience isn’t smart enough to figure out what happens when cancer grows. It gives a childish tone to a serious discussion. It’s such a strange decision, I just can’t imagine what emotions Mills thought he was evoking.

As if that weren’t enough, there’s also a sequence where the screen fills completely with each color from the gay pride flag as McGregor once again narrates to us. I in no way mean to belittle the gay pride flag nor its significance to it’s members, but the way in which it’s presented in the film is clearly supposed to be artsy and quirky for art and quirk sake. My issue is not the content of what’s being said and pointed out but the way in which it’s being done, which feels like it was taken from Indie Film for Dummies. But neither of these are anywhere near as annoying as the repeated still photos with voice-over. “This is 1959. This is what happiness looks like in 1959. This is the President in 1959.” They are pretentious and an absolute chore to sit through.

Beginners is stuck so far up it’s own ass it can see the world through it’s bellybutton. It’s truly a shame, as there seems to be a decent film hiding under there somewhere. As is, we’re asked to care about the emotional well-being of a main character who just needs to grow up.

In the few sequences where we see Oliver at work, we realize that he’s made a name for himself doing portrait art for album covers and the like. When a group comes to him for his signature style he pushes and pushes them on a series of photos depicting the history of sadness. He simply cannot or will not do what they want from him despite the fact that what he wants has absolutely nothing to do with their album. You know what Oliver? We have to do stuff we don’t want to do all the time. But we suck it up and do it because that’s what it takes to pay the rent. That’s what being an adult is all about, having to do stuff you don’t really want to do. Oliver is the poor little rich kid who never had to grow up and frankly, I don’t care. There’s an artist mentality there, like he should be able to make a living doing whatever he wants to do, but it’s ignorant of the world and how it works. Despite a handful of genuine moments and earned laughs, Beginners is crafted as the perfect art film for the wine and cheese crowd and is quite simply too full of itself to be enjoyable.