There is something quietly surprising about Mike Mills' new drama "Beginners" which premiered at the 2010 Toronto Film Festival this past weekend. The picture is stylistically unlike Mills' best known cinematic effort to date, "Thumbsucker," and feels inspired by the work of many of his peers including Spike Jonze, Sofia Coppola and Miranda July (who just happens to be his girlfriend). But considering Mills' artistic background and evolution that's more of a relief than a surprise. Nor is it the relaxed and sublime performances delivered by Ewan McGregor, Melanie Laurent or Christopher Plummer (although more on that later). What stands out most from Mills' story of late thirtysomething love is what an unexpected quintessential LA film it is.
Set in 2003, "Beginners" ostensibly centers on Oliver (McGregor, basically playing Mills), a graphic artist whose 75-year-old father Hal (Plummer) shocks him by coming out of the closet after the death of his mother. Hal then spends the next four years of his life trying to live the gay lifestyle as much as he can before eventually succumbing to cancer. A few months after, Oliver meets Anna (Laurent) an actress with whom he shares a youthful and quirky bond. Of course, both have their issues with commitment and in many ways -- as the title suggests -- are just as much beginners in the art of relationships as Oliver's elderly father was in dating men.
While Oliver's support of his father is heartwarming (and based on true events in Mills' life), it's the Anna storyline that has the most impact. Set mostly in the Los Feliz, Silverlake and Echo Park neighborhoods of Los Angeles, the picture stands alongside "The Kids Are All Right," "Cyrus" and "Quinceanera" as a realistic and unsanitized snapshot of life in that part of the city over the past decade. From the costume/Halloween party where Oliver meets first Anna to their late night dog park escapades to Hal's venturing to Silverlake signature LA hipster gay bar Akbar, "Beginners" showcases a single, middle class world east of Santa Monica that is rarely depicted onscreen. And unlike "500 Days of Summer" which has a slick sheen over its downtown LA locales, Mills brings an atmosphere to "Beginners" that makes the viewer think what their watching on screen was a part of their own Los Angeles day (and with very little shaky camera mind you).
As for the film overall, the director's vision is primarily assisted by one of the most natural performances this writer has seen from McGregor in years. It's unclear if it's just because the material suits his talents more than some of the commercial endeavors he's taken recently, but the Brit seems more at home here than in some of his more notable UK efforts from the '90s. Laurent, in one of her first true English speaking roles, is a charmer and her chemistry with McGregor helps flesh out a part that isn't too deep on the surface. Plummer is more than fine as Hal, but like his Oscar nominated performance in "The Last Station," his role isn't as rich as you'd think it would be. The true surprise among the cast is Mary Page Keller as Oliver's mother Georgia. Her character is depicted mostly in flashbacks with Oliver as a child and she reveals where his whimsical demeanor and melancholy point of view regarding love originates.
It's a relief that "Beginners" is getting serious acquisition buzz because after the film's initial Press and Industry screening, this critic kept waiting for a round of applause which strangely never occurred. Perhaps the film is a tad out of place at the increasingly commercial Toronto. It would have been a hot topic if the filmmakers had waited to premiere at Sundance (as well as also appealing to the much more to the LA-centric audiences in Park City). As for whether "Beginners" will be released before the end of the year for awards considerations by whoever picks it ups is unknown at the moment (Plummer's name has been mentioned by many as a shoe in), but whenever it hits theaters it should find a small legion of passionate fans.
Nice work Mr. Mills. What will you do for an encore?
For a sneak peek at "Beginners," check out the two clips from the film below.
Look for more from Toronto as the week progresses on Awards Campaign.