Friday, July 1, 2011

Beginners: Gay Dad Teaches Son About Love

What a great little film this is, and a real respite from summer-movie gore and sci-fi - if you need a break from that sort of thing.

Beginners is one of those films about life and love, but with a unique perspective: Ewan McGregor plays Oliver, the straight son of a gay man (Hal, played by Christopher Plummer) who comes out in his early Seventies after forty years of marriage. Plummer is spot on as the man who sheds his formerly straight skin to explore the gay world for the first time, with all the enthusiasm of a teenager.

Hal only has a few years to savor his new life before he's struck with lung cancer, and Oliver has to care for his father to the end, as well as hold the secret of his terminal illness from Hal's lover and friends. Meanwhile, Oliver himself has no knack for girls, until he find one - Anna, played marvelously by the illuminated Melanie Laurant - whom he hopes will be the one to stay.

A film like this lives or dies by the story telling, and the writing here is fantastic - pointillist and impressionistic, jumping through time, and filled with metaphor and keen observation. Here are just a few of the things I loved in this film:

  • A cute Jack Russell terrier (I'm a sucker for dogs, aren't I?) who speaks to Oliver in long, erudite sentences translated in silence.
  • Again silence as Anna has laryngitis when they first meet, and they have to negotiate their first date with hand signals and a small pad of paper.
  • Oliver's voice-over narration, which peppers the world with things as they are: a kind of scrapbook of life that is a poignant counterpart to his father's inevitable dying.
  • Oliver's mother, a woman who is unhappy but not defeated, and just quirky enough to leave Oliver with a botched up view of himself and the world.
  • The childlike way in which Hal discovers himself in the gay world, and the role reversal that takes place between himself and his son - with Oliver taking care of Hal, yet still, or perhaps more than ever, learning important things from him.

All this is great and I wish the central relationship - between Oliver and Anna - could stand up to everything else going on around them. Both of them are supposed to be a little sad and broken, yes (Oliver sketches these portraits of people he calls "the sads"). But it's all a little bit too precious, especially seeing as how savvy Oliver is about his life, his own predilections and desires.

I supposed that can be forgiven when one is treated to such keen observation everywhere else. If there's one movie that I would gladly say is for everyone this summer - young or old, gay or straight, fearless or feckless - this would be it.

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