You Gotta Start Somewhere

Beginners a film by Mike Mills.  With Ewen McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Melanie Laurent, Mary Page Keller, Cosmo.

I have the perfect solution for those who loved 20th Century Women and don’t know what to watch next (after they’ve read the profile of director Mike Mills in the New Yorker): watch Mills’ previous film Beginners, which streams on Netflix.  I saw this very winning movie when it first came out, in 2010.  But it looks completely different after you’ve seen 20th Century Women, which has a fuller profile of the mother character, who is only sketched out in Beginners.  Once you’ve seen Annette Bening in this fuller portrait, you have a much better understanding of the protagonist’s problems with women in Beginners.  And you have a better understanding of his father as well.

Mills alters various biographical details to create better films: in neither movie does he have a sibling (in life he had two older sisters; the Greta Gerwig character in 20th Century Women is a stand-in for one of them), and in 20th Century Women the father is absent (so as better to focus on the mother) when in actual fact he was still around, though perhaps not terribly present.

In any case, to sketch out the situation in broad strokes: Mike Mills had a most unusual and memorable and difficult mother, who had her great virtues but wasn’t the easiest mother for a kid to have (he has said that all of his therapy has been about his mother); she died in 1999, and soon after that Mills’ father came out as gay—which he had actually been all along—and then was diagnosed with cancer, dying just a few years after his wife.  Out of those biographical facts Mills has made two marvelous movies.  I wonder what he can possibly do now, since he seems to have mined his life so thoroughly.  (Maybe he could tell us what it’s like to live with Miranda July.  Unless this movie does that.)

The memorable and difficult mother is played in Beginners by Mary Page Keller, but in the present moment of the film she has died, so we see her only in flashbacks with her young son.  She seems eccentric and charming and overwhelming, but we don’t see enough of her to get the full impact.  But once we’ve seen 20th Century Women, we completely understand why this woman’s son Oliver (Ewen McGregor) will have so much trouble establishing a relationship with any other woman, even one as adorable as the Anna that he meets in Beginners (Melanie Laurent).  They seem to get along wonderfully; they’re both good-looking but not showy, talented, fun-loving, somehow adrift in the world.  And yet there’s a moment late in the film when he says, “I don’t think this is how I’m supposed to feel” (why would he think there’s a way he’s supposed to feel?) and is ready to let her go.  It’s enough to make you scream.

We can also understand why that mother would have married the extremely charming and good-looking man played by Christopher Plummer in Beginners and why she would say “I can fix that” when he pointed out that he was gay.  She thought she could fix anything.  We already understand why Hal, in 1955, wouldn’t have been able to live comfortably as a gay man, would have married a woman and had a gay life that was entirely furtive.  It actually seems like a good idea to marry a woman like Georgia.   He could at least be honest with her, and she was open-minded enough to appreciate all his good qualities, even if their sexual needs didn’t match.

So we see two stories of beginners in this movie, which Mills somehow blends together effortlessly: Hal coming out as gay, and living the brief life he had as an openly and rather flagrantly gay man—Oliver, who looked after him while he was sick, was often a sidekick to the gatherings of gay men—and Oliver going through the mourning for his father, for both parents in a way, for the life they had left him with, and trying to make his way in a world with no parents, and where he was trying to establish a relationship with a woman.  Both stories are touching, bittersweet, and ultimately upbeat.

And both involve the greatest dog in the history of movies, Hal’s dog Arthur that Oliver inherited, played by Cosmo.

The final (obnoxiously literal) question is: was Beginners a portrait of Mike Mills’ meeting with Miranda July, whom he supposedly met in 2005, right after his father died?  Anna seems to be an actress of some kind, who spends a lot of time in hotel rooms and going off to do auditions.  The character as he created her in the original screenplay was not French, but he made changes once he had cast the beautiful Ms. Laurent.  Was Miranda July the woman who finally freed Mike Mills from his mother complex?

Maybe nobody can do that.  He did just make a long movie about (he calls it a love letter to) his mother.  That leaves us with another question: are he and his wife ever going to collaborate on a movie?