There are certain films that make me wish I was more of an actual ‘critic’, rather than someone who simply jots down personal impressions of films. Although I have listed a ‘film reviews’ section on the sidebar of this blog, I feel like a bit of a fraud calling what I write on films (and books) ‘reviews’. But I have to call it something, so ‘reviews’ will do. Some films are just so good though, that I wish I had a better vocabulary and a more rounded skill in expressing why. Mike Mills’s Beginners is one such film.
I’ve been saving writing about this film till after I finished writing my book. It’s like my reward. I first saw Beginners in the cinema and walked out in tears (please note if you ever go to the movies with me, I am prone to displays of emotion). I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a DVD copy of it and my friend from the UK kindly sent me one recently. I re-watched Beginners today and fell in love with this film even more. I wanted to write on it straight away.
I don’t really want to talk about the plot of this film, so if you haven’t seen it, here’s a short description. I also don’t want to engage with it intellectually. Certain films make me react by recalling quotes and theoretical material I’ve read. It’s like a game where I connect art and theory together. It’s a very enjoyable game, but it’s not one I play with every film. Beginners just pulled me in at a gut-level, like listening to a beautifully crafted song whose meaning nevertheless resides in the emotions it evokes, rather than in its craft.
So here we are. Why did I love Beginners so much? Well, because it doesn’t try to simplify things that other films often simplify: grief, sadness, love, desire, sex, relationships, happiness. Its honesty and vulnerability is not some black and white construct of elated joy or bleak realism. It moves beyond the familiar genres of sweet, indie self-introspection and depressing, gritty realism. It’s like it puts these genres together in a blender and mixes them to produce something more authentic and more in line with ordinary people’s experiences of life. There are many films that claim (or attempt) to do this, but very few that succeed. At least in my opinion.
You could say this is a film about a multitude of life ‘lessons’: learning to accept who and what you are, learning to love and trust in other people, learning to live with imperfection and disappointment, learning not to be afraid of vulnerability, learning to let go of the baggage of our pasts and our parents. All very important ‘lessons’, yes, but I don’t like didactic films. Rather than being a ‘lesson’, Beginners is an empathetic narrative. It also features one of Ewan McGregor’s best performances. Although I did think he was ever-so-slightly outshined by Arthur the dog. What a neat little man.
I loved everything about Beginners: its story, acting, characters, narration, style, dialogue, humour, sensitivity, cleverness (that never resorted to cool pretentiousness), and so on, and so on. All these aspects worked together in such a natural way. And although I came away from it with many scenes stuck in my mind, there’s one scene that dominates. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll recognise this:
Hal: Well, let’s say that since you were little, you always dreamed of getting a lion. And you wait, and you wait, and you wait, and you wait, but the lion doesn’t come. And along comes a giraffe. You can be alone, or you can be with the giraffe.
Oliver: I’d wait for the lion.
Hal: That’s why I worry about you.
I suspect that’s why my parents worry about me too. But hey, I’ve loved a few giraffes deeply while waiting for my lion. And that lion is somewhere.
If you haven’t seen Beginners, set aside a quiet day to enjoy it. If you have seen it, I’d love to hear your opinion.