Beginners (Focus Features, R)

Beginners is not the self-discovery romp we’ve been led to expect. It’s really a sweet but tough movie about the piling on of melancholy.

 

 

Oliver (Ewan McGregor) has a problem. He can’t quite get over the recent losses of his mother and, just a few years later, his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer). Oliver has become a man quietly obsessed with loss and sadness in such a way that it threatens to permanently overtake his whole life.

Oliver’s spirits get a boost from the silent and mysterious Anna (Mélanie Laurent) during a chance meeting at a party. But, when it becomes obvious that she has problems of her own, their mutual grief threatens to take down their budding romance.

Let me start by saying that the advertising for Beginners has been somewhat misleading. While Hal does, indeed, come out to Oliver after his wife’s passing and begin to live life as a gay man, Beginners is not the self-discovery romp we’ve been led to expect. It’s really a sweet but tough movie about the piling on of melancholy. This is a study in the effects of life’s tendency to sucker-punch us with bad news before giving us a shot at getting over the last calamity.

Beginners should actually be called Two Incredibly Sad People in Love. It’s clear before too long that Oliver and Anna have both suffered from some degree of sorrow throughout their whole lives. They’ve just had the bad fortune to meet when both happen to be getting sadder.

One of the best things about Beginners is the way it shows how people begin to act out when they can feel depression swallowing them whole. Maybe you roll all the way home on the property of the skating rink that kicked you out. Or you take up graffiti at 38 years old. It’s also possible that you could decide to gleefully disrupt a showing at an art gallery. To paraphrase one (rather surprising) character, “The darkness will take over if we don’t do something drastic right now.”

Anna and Oliver have one of those rare movie romances that manage to feel real; it is loving, easy, confusing, and terrifying all at once. As much as they love being able to confide in each other, they also realize that their mutual mournfulness is the very thing that might rip them apart. It’s a singular issue that only tends to surface in films in which the couple is experiencing the same loss. Beginners poses the question, can you handle two hearts this heavy when the cause of the weight is so different?

Now, lest you think that Beginners is all dour depression play and no spark, I can assure you that this is not the case. McGregor and Laurent do an excellent job of imbuing their characters with the occasional glimmer of hope and liveliness amidst all the pain. You can tell that once these two figure out the best way to band together they’ll be able to pull each other up instead of dragging each other further down.

For his part, Plummer is mostly spark as a man who’s decided to free himself in the twilight of his life. Hal got to the place Anna and Oliver aspire to. It’s the place where you can begin again after life throws a curve your way and still look forward with ease.│Adrienne Jones

 

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