Motion pictures promise an idealized version of life as we experience it — the words feel genuine but come out so much more clever, and the faces are prettier than could ever transpire out in the real world. It follows that filmmaking comes to be this constant push and pull between aesthetic and pragmatism. Too much style can collapse substance, but substance without the window dressing is stale, unoriginal.
At the State
At its onset, “Beginners” threatens to fall victim to the former. Characters with yuppie dinner party names: Oliver, Anna, a dog named Arthur. A meet cute at a Halloween party where the girl has laryngitis and has to communicate through a tiny notebook while dressed as Charlie Chaplin. A pulsating voiceover by Ewan McGregor (“I Love You Phillip Morris”), which intonates things like “This is the sun in 1955. And the stars. And the President.” And “This is what sadness looks like” (flash neon, hipster color on screen). These situations and lines, which seem to come out of your standard, precious storybook romance, feel a bit like free radicals bombarding the surface without much of a unifier — at least at first.
That coveted unifier reveals itself as, of course, grief — the underlying story being that Oliver’s recently-out father Hal (Christopher Plummer, “The Last Station”) has just passed away, leaving his son forlorn, alone to deal with his own fractured emotions.
Consider such a scene: A Jack Russell terrier recognizes the head of his recently deceased owner and joyously bounds down the hallway to meet his master. For that sustained second, Oliver too believes that his father has come back from the dead, his face lighting up in anticipation. But the man turns around, and it turns out to be just the old guy that lives across the hall. “Sorry about that,” Oliver apologizes. He turns the key to his apartment. Once inside, he breaks down into a series of dry sobs.
There are analogous tableaux peppering the film’s many lovesick sequences. And once the film does let itself seethe a little before settling down into its own melancholic skin, it starts to breathe. We can admire Mélanie Laurent’s (“Inglourious Basterds”) darling little fishtail braid (which had me secretly plotting YouTube tutorial searches on the drive home), but what keeps us in the theater is the film’s spirit, potent with truths of aging, deterioration, fabrication and family values. In time, we realize that there’s something gently organic — special, even — about the film, a beating fist of a heart that contracts and expands with every new pulsation.
Perhaps this derives from writer and director Mike Mills’s (“Thumbsucker”) true-to-life experience with death, having lost his own father to cancer a few years ago. It’s unlikely though that the director has met anybody as uncannily lovely as the inimitable Laurent, who, in all her Manic Pixie Dream Girl glory, permeates with the freshness of hurt, abandonment and youth. Mills’s own doppelganger is played by the warm, crease-lined face of one Mr. McGregor, a face that breaks into a joyous grin at our scarcest expectation beneath his insulated cocoon of loneliness.
The true goal of Mills’s sophomore project was not to make a cute little film about falling in love at an unexpected time (though this does take center stage, especially toward the end), but to take a more synoptic view of the human condition. Where “Beginners” succeeds splendidly is in communicating the complexities of living a life bracketed by tragedy and incomprehensible happiness. Contentment, it tells us, can never be experienced without a modicum of grief framing the corners. Life is not about burying oneself into numb apathy — it’s about embracing these emotional extremes, to fully breathe in a style but also to drink deep from the substance.