Mike Mills begins his second feature by noting the sense of cosmic repetition that perpetuates before and after our existence – Here’s a family in the 30s, here’s a family in the now, these are sunspots, this is a happy family, etc. He juxtaposes these images with Oliver’s (Ewan McGregor) traumatic experiences as a boy, as an adult, and after the death of his father. It’s interesting in theory and somewhat successful in execution to bridge the central plot with a narrative that is largely absent of form and wildly overarching in terms of relatability. In point, Mills attempts to bridge our own small existence by noting how little things change through our interactions with people. But it’s one of many points that Mills attempts to get across, and for its ambition, it’s similar to The Tree of Life – attempting to reconcile our own demons by viewing our lives as a product of our parents - though not wholly successful.
As Oliver contends with the loss of his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), we gather how Oliver’s past relationships have been shaped by his interactions with his parents. Mills moves around the time of the narrative, leaping from periods of Oliver’s adolescence, to when he sees his mother and father interact, to the time that Hal reveals his sexuality, and to the time after Hal’s death. This narrative device to leap around time is executed quite well, as Mills uses Oliver’s flourishing relationship with Anna (Mélanie Laurent) to mark how he’s able to work his way through a relationship, and how he can sabotage them.
The central three characters are absolutely wonderful, wherein the slightest glance exchanged between them brings about a flood of emotional strength. Unlike say, (500) Days of Summer, Mills rarely succumbs to cheesiness in his attempts to be cute. And there are plenty of cute moments throughout the film, from Oliver and Anna’s courtship to how Oliver interacts with his father’s dog. Part of what makes the film so special is its rich visual style – rarely taking place during the day, Beginners cinematography Kasper Tuxsen shoots in dimly lit hotel lobbies and streets. There’s something really poignant of such rich visual imagery being matched with such a cute, flourishing relationship between Anna and Oliver.
There are some half-hearted attempts at ramping up the drama, particularly as the film enters its final act. Such moments hinder the pacing and growth of such a sporadic narrative, but are necessary in getting Mill’s message across – so I’m torn on how I feel about it. Mill’s attempts at bringing cosmic gravity comes across as a bit overdone especially as the characters become so much more individualistic. Most of what Mills attempts to achieve with his overarching cosmic relatability would probably have worked better if it were all unsaid, merely left to the audience to derive such universal meaning from his film. It doesn’t do much to hurt the momentum that the film builds, but it sort of spells things out a bit too clearly.