Quirk is often misunderstood. There are those who use this arty form of humor to draw attention to themselves, but others use it as an attempt to understand the complexities of the world around them. When Oliver (Ewan McGregor) finds out that his father has terminal cancer, all he can imagine is a quarter. Then, a quarter evenly divided into other coins.
He does that not to be clever or unique. It’s an honest moment of the mind going to a place that is safe and understood like knowing there are 25 pennies in a quarter. Throughout the film, Oliver is in a difficult spot. A few years ago, his mother died. He had a difficult relationship with her, seen as he remembers moments that showed her deep misery. After her death, his father (Christopher Plummer) comes out of the closet. Then he dies as well.
Oliver is left alone to deal with the paperwork and the sadness. At least he has his father’s Jack Russell terrier, a scrappy creature who is intensely loyal and just as sad. Oliver’s friends drag him out of his studio and to a costume party. Oliver, of course, dresses as Freud. There, he meets the lovely Anna (Mélanie Laurent of “Inglourious Basterds” fame), who is mute on this night due to her laryngitis. As she communicates through a notepad and pen, it ends up being the perfect introduction because both of them appreciate the gaps of silence.
As Oliver struggles to understand what he’s feeling, the story jumps around in time. He focuses back to moments with his parents in order to try to understand them. The last few months with his dad end up being the most revealing, as he finally is able to see his father completely happy.
Writer/director Mike Mills wasn’t able to capture the right tone with his first film “Thumbsucker.” With “Beginners,” it works because of how emotional it is. Oliver may sound like the typical moody protagonist, but unlike the insufferable heroes of films like “The Art of Getting By”, Oliver doesn’t have all of the answers. He’s likable and he’s caring, but this is a very difficult moment in his life.
Anna is now his pixie-girl savior; she’s in a similar boat. They work together. They understand each other’s humor and times when they need to be alone. Their similarities can lead to being too much, though.
All three of the leading actors are incredible. They play on the subtle and the heartbreaking. A film doesn’t need the characters to continuously be looking deeply inside themselves in order to be deep. The real understanding of who they are is to realize what they are thinking while they are doing. They all accomplish this with expertise and empathy.
“Beginners” is one of the best movies of the year because it’s able to make you connect with its characters on such a personal level. There are no surprises in the plot as the situation is laid out in the first few minutes. What’s important is what happens next.