Loosely based on director Mike Mills’ own experience as the son of a gay father who came out in his seventies, Beginners is the story of sexual and emotional repression, thwarted relationships, and fresh starts. Hal (Christopher Plummer), at age 75, tells his 38-year-old son Oliver (Ewan McGregor), that he is gay and has been all of his life, letting him know that he loved his mother, but, unfortunately, does not take responsibility for failing to provide a nurturing and supportive environment for his family. Sadly, Hal soon discovers that he has Stage 4 cancer and is dying. Rather than wallowing in self pity, however, Hal commits himself to living his remaining days to the fullest, easily finding a young male lover Andy (Goran Visnjic), going to parties, and becoming involved with the gay community.
Beginners is also the story of Oliver’s struggle to transcend the legacy of his father’s perceived rejection and allow himself to see the barriers that he has constructed in his own life to keep from getting hurt. He hesitatingly begins an emotional connection with Anna (Melanie Laurent), a French actress who is as emotionally vulnerable. The two meet at a costume party where he is dressed up as Sigmund Freud, providing therapy to Anna, dressed as a silent movie star. Unable to speak because of laryngitis, she appropriately lies on the couch, communicating with “her doctor” only by writing notes. The film does not proceed in a linear timeline but repeatedly flashes back to various stages of Oliver’s life and his growing closeness with his dying father. He recalls times with his mother Georgia (Mary Page Keller) when she showed her frustrations with her marriage through eccentric behavior.
Though the film deals with deep emotions, it is marred by artifice and mannerisms that take away from the struggles of the characters to find themselves. Mills fills the screen with cutesy images such as Oliver’s graphic doodles (Oliver is an illustrator), a dog whose imagined thoughts are shown in subtitles, and montages of the past (when everyone was happy), introducing them with words such as “This is 2003. This is the sun. These are the stars. This was the President,” and so on. He also intersperses his flashbacks with shots of the history of the struggle to achieve gay rights, snippets from Gay Pride parades, Allen Ginsburg reciting sexually explicit lines from his poem “Howl,” and scenes from the film The Times of Harvey Milk. While these are important milestones in the fight for equality, in this context they are extraneous to the immediate personal emotions that the characters are grappling with.
In another affected moment, when Hal is told that he has a lump in his chest the size of a quarter, we are shown a quarter, and then five nickels, and then another combination of coins equal to that amount. The film also ventures into morally dubious territory such as when Oliver’s mother allows the ten-year-old boy to drive their car. In another scene, the narrator describes, in matter-of-fact tones, that Hal had furtive sex with men in public bathroom toilets during the time of his marriage, exposing himself to the possibility of arrest and his family to shame. Also, oblivious to any legal or moral considerations, Oliver and Anna decide to have fun and “do vandalism,” painting graffiti on private property.
Though the performances by Plummer, McGregor, and Laurent are outstanding, Beginners unfortunately divides the world into pigeon holes. I am gay, you are straight and never the twain shall meet, overlooking the fact that Hal was bisexual and that, according to Ford and Beach’s “Patterns of Sexual Behavior,” human sexuality is predisposed to bisexuality and that all of us have the capacity for both forms of sexual expression. When Oliver tells his girlfriend Anna about his father for the first time, he doesn’t say my father is a quiet but loving man (we never find out what he did for a living) but tells her only “my father is gay” as if being gay was the single defining characteristic of his life.
Gay liberation should also be a part of human liberation, being able to define ourselves not in terms of what we do for a living, our economic status, or our sexual identity, but by our inner qualities, who we really are, in Mort Sahl’s phrase, mortal beings “trying to find our way home and searching for justice and love along the way.” As we enter the second decade of a new century, the world is looking for a new definition of what it means to be human, to discover that beyond black and white, Jew and Gentile, beyond the gay community and the straight community, there is just community, a pluralistic social and sexual democracy transcending the orthodoxy of rigid categorization, an orthodoxy that stifles our capacity for intimate connection with all people. In that respect, Beginners offers no new beginning.