June 8, 2011


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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Worth a Ticket:  A funny, moving story about navigating the twists of life.

Mike Mills’ BEGINNERS is about the fumble for love, the wrong turns and mistakes that can delay–although luckily not always prevent–true happiness.  Mills has said that this story is semiautobiographical:  like his protagonist Oliver (Ewan McGregor), Mills learned after the death of his mother that his 75-year old father (Hal in the film, played by Christopher Plummer) was and had always been gay.  Uncloseted at last, Hal, like Mills’ father, lived as an openly gay man for the last years of his life, finding love with the younger Andy (Goran Visnjic) before succumbing to cancer.  

Beginners takes place along 3 simultaneous timelines in Oliver’s life, intercutting between them:  his childhood relationship with his mother Georgia (Mary Page Keller), who was troubled and dissatisfied for reasons Oliver would only come to understand decades later; the period after her death when he became closer to his father as his dad happily explored his own sexuality; and shortly after his father’s death, as Oliver enters into a relationship with a beautiful French actress, Anna (Melanie Laurent).  As the movie develops, we see how each period of Oliver’s life affected the next, and the ways echoes of his youth have shadowed his adulthood.  He comes to understand that neither of his parents did anything wrong, exactly, and certainly not to hurt him; they were just trying to live within the strictures of their times and upbringing (Oliver gives us mini-documentary slideshows within the film to tell us about the differences and similarities of the eras).  Still, it’s all affected him in ways he’ll need to move beyond if he’s to have fulfilling relationships of his own. 
Mills has come a long way from his pretentious debut Thumbsucker (which was based on a novel rather than his own material).  Beginners flows beautifully between its chronologies, with humor and imagination–once Oliver has inherited Hal’s lovable Jack Russell terrier, the dog occasionally makes his (subtitled) observations known to Oliver.  All the characters are layered–even Andy and Anna, who could have been pure fantasy figures for their respective men, have their own issues, rooted reasons for the ways they act.  Mills presents them all with compassion and generosity.  The actors give lovely performances.  McGregor can be a weak presence in some films, but here that drifting quality works well for Oliver, while Plummer does some of the most likable work of his career; Laurent, who played the Jewish partisan Shosanna in Inglourious Basterds, brings shadings of darkness to Anna.  Mills’ understated, effective use of music, by Roger Neill, Dave Palmer and Brian Reitzell, is also notable 
There are innumerable traps in making a gentle, eccentric film like Beginners, and Mills has sidestepped most of them.  It’s a quietly moving, illuminating story about the ways in which we’re formed, and the possibility that we can learn to live beyond them.  

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."