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Does 'Beginners' Stack Up Against Big Summer Blockbusters?

This sweet indie about an openly gay patriarch and his son is a little hidden gem.

We’ve all watched the scene many times.

Take the juggernaut “Glee” for instance: Kurt, the sensitive, fashion-forward student, sitting on the couch and tearfully admitting to his dad he’s gay. The strings swoon and, as it is “Glee,” he ends up singing about it.

The next season it happened again when sharp-tongued cheerleader Santana admits her homosexuality to her best friend. The strings swoon once more and, yes, she ends up singing. This is how we usually picture someone coming out, a dramatic, tear-filled confession.

But Hal’s wasn’t like that. It had no tears, no yearning for acceptance, no singing. But that’s because Hal lives in the real world, not the glossy halls of McKinley High, and because his coming out was far from typical.

“I’m gay,” the 75-year-old, recent widower told his son, as if mentioning what he’d like for lunch. After years of self-denial and a distant marriage, Hal is not wasting any time starting his life anew.

This begins “Beginners,” a quirky drama written and directed by Mike Mills. It opened on June 3, but has only now started playing in Connecticut.

It tells the story of Hal (Christopher Plummer) who is trying to discover the gay man inside of him that had been hiding for over 70 years. He gets a boyfriend, goes to clubs and joins activism groups.

But then, just as he is settling down into a comfortable lifestyle, he gets a diagnosis. Cancer, they tell him, and it’s already spread through his body.

The film then flashes back and forth between Hal’s illness and a tentative relationship between Hal’s grieving and emotionally distant son, Oliver (Ewen McGregor), with a transient actress (Melanie Laurent). We also flashback to Oliver’s solitary childhood, only populated by his free-spirited mother.

While the movie starts with Hal coming out of the closet, the film isn’t about homosexuality. In a way, it is less about coming out of the closet than it is being locked in the closet: Oliver in the closet of his depression and solidarity; Anna, his girlfriend, in the stifling closet of her transitory lifestyle.

Interestingly enough, only the gay man is able to let himself out. They are really just like Hal’s Jack Russell Terrier Arthur, who Oliver later adopts, just yearning for the simple pleasure of someone else’s love and attention yet unable to find the words to acquire it.

In a scene early in the film, Oliver takes his new dog to the park where Arthur just sits on the bench content to nuzzle his new master.

“Go and have your own experience with your own people,” Oliver prods.

But it’s no use. Whether if he wants to or not, Arthur’s sheltered life hasn’t given him the tools to connect with “his own people,” preferring to stay in the comfortable, if not boring, world of his master.  

Oliver’s words are the mantra to this movie – the thing all the characters want but are unable to attain. Except for Hal, who, at 75, decided to say to hell with it and live his life the way he wanted to.

Maybe it was age that allowed him the strength to do so, but at the end of the day Hal died a happy man while his son sleepwalks through an unhappy life.

The performances here from McGregor and Laurent (the female lead in “Inglorious Bastards”) are strong yet subtle. It is also a pleasure to see a master like Christopher Plummer on screen, who comes across with an almost-Shakespearian regality.

While the acting is top-notch, some of the symbolism and philosophical dialogue does get pushed a bit too far. There are many shots of Anna’s hotel that are meant to symbolize her empty life, and the comment “we’re just going in circles” that Oliver’s mother makes while driving is obviously about more than just her son’s directions.

The themes are strong but the heavy-handed symbolism can feel overbearing and pretentious. I also would have loved to see Laurent’s character more fleshed out. While it works because even her boyfriend doesn’t know much about her, the character can feel flat.

Despite that, in a season dominated by films with explosions and superheroes, “Beginners” is a wonderful gem of an indie with a little humor and a lot of soul.

What I'd see this week:

  • For some adventure - “Super 8”
  • For some laughs - “Horrible Bosses”
  • For some drama - “Beginners”
  • For the kids - “Mr. Popper’s Penguins”

Is there a film you'd like to see reviewed? Email Noah.Golden@Patch.com

Don Casey July 09, 2011 at 09:36 PM
My wife and I went to see Beginners today, has to be the worse movie of the year, of the 10 people in the show 9 were sleeping. Dont waist your money
Tom Holehan July 11, 2011 at 03:47 PM
The movie is a gem! For people still anxious to see worthy drama about real people instead of F/X and noisy explosions, this lowkey, mature and beautifully acted drama with heart and wit is just the ticket!

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