Beginners - Movie Review

4 stars

Beginners is an oddball little delight from Thumbsucker filmmaker Mike Mills, that begins where it ends. We first meet Oliver (Ewan McGregor) as he’s clearing out the house of his recently deceased father, Hal (Christopher Plummer).

Via a series of flashbacks that are seamlessly integrated with present-tense scenes of Oliver attempting to hash out a relationship with French actress Anna (Melanie Laurent), we learn of Hal’s tricky marriage to Oliver’s mother and his subsequent “coming out of the closet” announcement at 75 years of age once Oliver’s mother dies from cancer.

Owing its title to the fact that both Hal and Oliver are both beginning anew – Hal, with his long-repressed new sexual identity (he now gets to finally wear scarves around his neck) and Oliver with trying to find his way through a new relationship – Beginners finds most of its success from the belief that something this personal can be so universally interesting. That the concrete details of a relationship - the struggles, humor, openness and honesty between a father and son - can resonate so strongly with an audience.

Of course, it all hinges on how well the story is told; and with the aid of a marvelous cast at the top of its game, Mills’s script skillfully tiptoes the tightrope of success by tempering the nearly overwhelming moments of sadness with equally intense bits of elation.  Oliver, clearly scarred by a lifetime of emotional detachment, just wants to find someone, and to finally stay with someone. Anna shares a certain amount of Oliver’s generational uncertainties and approaches love with an equal dose of skepticism and hesitation. When the two meet, we can’t help but wish happiness for them both.

Mills takes some big risks with the film’s tiny but impactful moments, such as the relationship Oliver develops with his father’s dog Arthur, a Jack Russell terrier he inherits after Hal dies.  Arthur nearly steals the show as he conveys Oliver’s most tender thoughts and moments of private introspection via subtitled captions. A talking dog is a risky device for sure, but Mills pulls off the gimmick like a pro. After all, who amongst us doesn’t speak to our pets?

The filmmaker takes another considerable chance by wrapping his intimate tale in a larger statement of how we perceive our place in history and how we are shaped by the era we grew up in. Thus, the motivation for Oliver’s voice-over sound bites like “this is what love looked like in 1955” and “This is what the sky looked like in 2003” accompanied by graphic imagery resembling period advertising art.

Mike Mills has taken a particularly confusing and painful part of his own life and turned it into a moving expression of acceptance, compromise, and the struggle to overcome obstacles. By most conventional accounts, his somewhat disjointed and meandering tale-of-many-subplots shouldn’t have worked. But his deft skill as a filmmaker, coupled with the weighty performances of the cast make Beginners a strangely enchanting little film.

{2jtab: Film Details}

Beginners - Movie ReviewMPAA Rating: R for language and some sexual content.
: Mike Mills
: Mike Mills
Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer and Mélanie Laurent; Goran Visnjic
Genre: Indie | Comedy | Drama
Memorable Movie Quote: "This is the living room."
Focus Features
Release Date:
June 11, 2011
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date:
November 15, 2011

Synopsis: From writer/director Mike Mills comes a comedy/drama about how deeply funny and transformative life can be, even at its most serious moments. Beginners imaginatively explores the hilarity, confusion, and surprises of love through the evolving consciousness of Oliver (Ewan McGregor). Oliver meets the irreverent and unpredictable Anna (Mélanie Laurent) only months after his father Hal (Academy Award nominee Christopher Plummer) has passed away. This new love floods Oliver with memories of his father who – following 44 years of marriage – came out of the closet at age 75 to live a full, energized, and wonderfully tumultuous gay life. The upheavals of Hal’s new honesty, by turns funny and moving, brought father and son closer than they’d ever been able to be. Now Oliver endeavors to love Anna with all the bravery, humor, and hope that his father taught.

{2jtab: Blu-ray Details}

Beginners - blu-ray

Component Grades
Blu-ray Disc
4 stars
3 stars
Blu-ray Experience
3.5 Stars


Blu-ray Details:

Available on Blu-ray - November 15, 2011
Screen Formats: 1.85:1
: English SDH, French, Spanish
Audio: English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1; Spanish: DTS 5.1
Discs: 50GB Blu-ray Disc; Single disc (1 BD); BD-Live; Mobile features
Playback: Region A

Universal's 1080p/VC-1 encoded transfer isn’t the shiniest bulb on the Christmas tree.  It was shot on the Red One high definition camera, but its muted colors and dull overcast leaves a lot to be desired.  Even primary colors don’t sizzle.  Black levels don’t hold their corners and feel a bit too light and the contrast levels aren’t sharp enough to keep their edges.  Close-ups are quite detailed, though.  Unfortunately, that’s really the only indicator of the use of the Red One camera.  The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track could be a bit sterner in its handling of the sound textures, too.  While it handles Roger Neill, Dave Palmer and Brian Reitzell's bubbly score, overall ambience is hit-or-miss.



  • Writer/director Mike Mills waxes poetic about the making of the film as it matters personally and also covers the technical aspect of filmmaking.  He is largely soft-spoken through the commentary and, while he does cover many topics, he keeps things largely glossy.

Special Features:

There isn’t a lot of meat on this bone, folks.  We get a special look at the autobiographical nature of the narrative, which covers what Mills can do with film, and one promo.  That’s it.

  • A Short Film About ‘Beginners’ (15 min)
  • Promo (1 min)

{2jtab: Trailer}