On the surface – as in, had I watched much of this on silent – there would probably be a lot for me to dislike about Beginners: a dog talking in subtitles, white yuppies doing graffiti, found material montages, hipster parties where a dressed up Freud pretends to diagnose patients – it all kind of sounds like a mess. It’s pretty amazing then, if you think of this from an image-only perspective, that Mike Mills managed to make one of the better films of the year with these ingredients.
Beginners is voiceover-heavy, another tool I frequently dislike. The voiceover belongs to Ewan McGregor who plays Oliver Fields. Oliver’s mother died a few years ago and his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) immediately came out of the closet. Beginners begins with the notion of Hal’s death and works across a timeline, frequently flashing back to Oliver’s childhood, to moments with his mother, to his father’s battle with cancer, to his father’s newfound homosexuality, and to the present, where Oliver is alone and depressed until he meets Anna (Melanie Laurent).
The voiceover in Beginners is far more successful than, say, that in The Descendants for a lot of reasons. First, it’s not strictly exposition-based. Oliver doesn’t only tell us info that we could also get from the strictly image-based narrative. Rather, his voiceover is a combination of information and recollection. It’s a good representation of the way that the mind jumps around when one event triggers it unexpectedly into a series of seemingly unrelated, but eventually traceable memories. Second, it’s pervasive. Where Clooney’s VO in The Descendants came in when deemed necessary, Oliver’s here is a constant tool. It’s not a tool that director Mills falls back on, but rather a tool that Mills uses to constantly reinforce and advance Oliver’s state of mind as the world around him collapses and then rebuilds.
There’s a great wordless sequence in Beginners that hits a beautiful emotion. Mills cuts to a flashback montage. Each shot in the series shows Oliver’s mother Georgia (Mary Page Keller) and father parting ways. In each one he leaves as she looks after him sadly. He doesn’t kiss her, he leaves abruptly without saying goodbye. Mills often places her in silhouette and in tight, voyeuristic spaces – a hallway, shooting through a doorway, etc. The effect is heartbreaking and the images accomplish such a sense of unfulfillment that dialogue would only be rendered meaningless. Because these are flashbacks we also understand the effect that these moments have on grow-up Oliver.
Mills uses a lot of other types of montage in here. He frequently refers to the time of year at which the moment in the script is taking place: “This is what _____ looks like in 2003. This is the president. This is ________,” etc. The images over this section are usually digressive from the narrative. He’ll literally flash a series of photographs of presidents. Or of coins. Or anything that relates to that time of year, no matter whether it speaks to the story or not. This happens multiple times in the film and it’s a strange choice. Mills’ idea seems to be consistent with his use of voiceover – here he wants to represent those small memories that we have that are seemingly insignificant but that actually represent a specific time in our lives that is memorable for some other reason. When Oliver recalls that George Bush was president he’s not remembering the Bush era of politics as much as he’s remembering what happened in his life when Bush was president. The visual technique of found material, often against a black backdrop, separates it from reality: these images exist only in a memory space.
I’m usually not a Ewan McGregor fan, but he pulls the performance off here. The moment when his father dies – anticlimactic in that a nurse simply tells Oliver – feels so true and sad as Oliver rushes to his bedside, throws his head on his father’s chest, and cries loudly. It’s Christopher Plummer however, who steals the show. His Hal is filled with the freedom of a new life and the sorrow of a life hidden.
On the extras, the DP Kasper Tuxen talks about how the production only carried a generator for a small amount of the 30 total shoot days and that the often lit scenes with natural light and a few extra bulbs. I love hearing about productions like this. Granted there aren’t many grandiose wide-shots in Beginners, but it’s still a testament to the ingenuity of a good cinematographer and a willing crew. The budget on Beginners was $3.2 million, which is pretty small considering the names involved. It looks like Tuxen and his crew probably made a little go a long way. The natural light of the interiors – mostly window-filled houses – feels real.