The awkward romance genre has really taken off since the twenty-first century began. In a world where marriage is less and less appealing and where the conventional has become increasingly more difficult to obtain (what with the whole unemployment pandemic), the desire twenty/thirty-somethings have to see a movie relationship (or lack thereof) that mirrors their own has clearly augmented in recent years. Mike Mills, whose first movie, Thumbsucker, was released in 2005 and followed the life of a seventeen year old with a thumbsucking problem, has waited six long years to come out with a sophomore effort--and let me tell you, after you see this film, you'll understand why.
Based on Mills' own experience with his father's impending death, as well as coming out to Mills at seventy-five years of age, Beginners follows Oliver's (Ewan McGregor) difficulty in coming to terms with Hal's (Christopher Plummer) newfound zeal for fucking dudes in the wake of his mother's death. Around the same time that Hal gets his groove back, he is soon after diagnosed with stage four cancer. Still, Hal insists they needn't tell anyone and that he actually feels like he is getting better (to which Oliver casually points out, "There is no stage five.").
After his father passes away, Oliver takes custody of his dog, Arthur, who becomes clingier and more attached to him than a battered housewife. With this canine, Mills' writing and directorial skills evidence a clearly altered style, one of the most notable characteristics being that Arthur is able to communicate with Arthur via subtitles. Such "indie" pandering was not present in Thumbsucker, but then, that material was based on another writer's work (Walter Kirn's 1999 novel of the same name).
Oliver fumbles through a mixture of treacle (big up to Arctic Monkeys for introducing me to that word) and silent anger until he meets Anna (Mélanie Laurent, who you recognize from Inglourious Basterds) at a Halloween party. He, dressed as Freud, unenthusiastically listens to other partygoers tell him their problems on the couch in the living room. It is then that Anna, who we later learn has laryngitis, lays down and writes the following question on a pad of paper: "Why are you at a party if you're sad?" From that point forward, it's a comfortable sort of love and admiration that they share for one another. And P.S. Why the fuck can't shit like that actually happen? Only in a Mike Mills/Wes Anderson/Charlie Kaufman/(insert other premier indie director here) can two socially stunted heterosexual people find one another and fall in love with the other's quirks.
Interweaving flashbacks of Oliver's past--including his flawed mama's boy upbringing--with his romantic present reveals an incisive juxtaposition for delineating why he has never been able to make a relationship endure. Based on one of Mills' more illustrious quotes on filmmaking,
Making a movie is so hard, you'd better make movies about something you really know about. And even more, it's really good to make movies about things you need to figure out for yourself, so you're driven the whole way through. It's going to make things more crucial for you.
I'd say this bastard knew quite a bit on the subject of love and all of its defects. Or maybe this movie is just a product of too much time spent with Miranda July.
Oliver does his best to navigate through the concept of a lasting love, finding ways to amuse himself in the interim (e.g. writing historically conscious graffiti like "1985 Bush Finds Jesus" or "2003 Britney Spears Most Googled" throughout the walls of Los Angeles). But somehow, he just can't comprehend the idea that things could really work out between him and Anna, which is why you might truly be surprised by the film's ending--mind you, all indie romances have to end on a semi-ambiguous note. Undoubtedly, it's a rule they'll soon be incorporating into "How to Write a Screenplay" books.