Starting Out: Beginners

Focus Features
There’s a scene in Beginners, Mike Mills’ semi-autobiographical 2010 film, where Oliver (Ewan McGregor) scoops a flower from his dad’s burgeoning backyard patch, walks back into the house, and places it in a chintzy vase on the kitchen countertop. It’s a banal, but sweet, gesture, another in a small catalog of efforts by Oliver to comfort his dying, semi-estranged father, Hal (Christopher Plummer). Oliver is trying to make Hal feel at home. As his home becomes a hospice, every picture frame, plant, or LP that desterilizes the surroundings appears welcome.

Beginners shows that we can find ourselves lost amid the cacophony of home life, resigned to its tedium and routine. We turn to small gestures as tokens of bigger emotions or as reminders of how we truly feel; playing songs others like, cooking meals, buying flowers. In Beginners, these gestures, though small, are all that home life is. The title is plural because it refers to Oliver and Hal both, setting out into the world anew at nearing-40 and 75, both, for the first time, making themselves at home.

Hal, after all, hasn’t felt at home in decades. A closeted gay man, born to an era in which your sexuality could imprison you, Hal married Georgia instead, raised a child. He kept his sexuality a secret until Georgia (Mary Page Keller) “died in their bed, after four months of cancer and eating French toast for every meal and watching the Teletubbies everyday and confusing white straws for her cigarettes.” The mundane trappings of suburban life give way to the mundane trappings of illness, the drudgery of both perfectly matched by McGregor’s dry voiceover, and Mills’ slow montages.

After Georgia dies, Hal’s new life begins. He goes to Staples, buys plants, hosts queer film nights in his living room (The Times of Harvey Milk), welcomes near-strangers into his home for parties; ordinary, weekend activities for the rest of us, but for Hal, thrilling acts of quiet defiance. Home, until now, has been a hermetic, performative place. “Domestic bliss” was a brisk morning kiss on the doorstep. Hal accepted with a resigned benevolence that being gay in 1955 meant not feeling at home in his home. It meant a bathroom stall supplanting your bedroom. It meant Ginsberg writing his queer anthem Howl down the road from where you were reciting your wedding vows. His bliss in his new home, and in feeling at home for the first time, is reminiscent of Joe Pitt’s philosophy in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: “My whole life has conspired to bring me to this place, and I can’t despise my whole life.”

This is a recurring trope in the queer canon of literature and cinema—home, to the LGBTQ community, can be a militaristic, traumatic, or at least performative place. It certainly was in Hal’s era (as films such as Far From Heaven have explored). Yet Oliver revisits what few moments of intimacy he can recollect between his parents over and over again; we see their rote gestures always from his perspective. Oliver’s upbringing has been artificial, he has been a voyeur to their role-playing, and into adulthood, he struggles to construct his own home. Oliver’s thing is observing from corridors and doorways; as an illustrator, it’s a helpful knack, but as a person, it keeps things at a distance. The first scene in Beginners sees Oliver dryly detail the function of each room in his house to his dad’s dog, Arthur (“This is the dining room where people come and eat sometimes”), as though their functions are as foreign and funny a concept to Oliver as to his canine counterpart.

The notion of home not being where you live, but where you come from, is baked into every cliché road trip film and homecoming story; it’s even become a cliché itself (“home is where the heart is”). But Beginners flips this Hallmark statement on its head, examining the more damaging implications of such a banality. How do you make anywhere home, if it never existed? Oliver is unable to reconcile the emotional sterility of his childhood home with his expectation to create a new one. He spends time instead in Hal’s company, fulfilling the aforementioned gestures, watching from doorframes and bedsides the new life Hal has made for himself. Shuttling between the hospital, his nondescript apartment, and a hotel room, Oliver is rudderless—scouting someone or somewhere to call home.

As his relationship with actress Anna (Mélanie Laurent) escalates, and he invites her to move in, Oliver provides the same home tour to her as he did to the dog (“These are the stairs…They go up”). Oliver performs the tour in a hollow mimicry of his parents’ old routines, as though to say “this is what’s expected of us here.” What could be read as general ennui is, in fact, an inability to understand the most basic functions or appurtenances of domestic life—Oliver has simply never experienced it. In the script for Beginners, Mills outlines the way Oliver views his mother retreating to her bedroom thus: “Oliver watches his mother walk down the hallway, very alone, and enter her bedroom—it feels like some gesture of hopelessness.” As a child, Oliver cannot fathom his mother’s inner life; he watches blankly, his wide eyes framed in medium shots. But his parents’ inner lives are opaque even to one another, a smokescreen of fleeting affection and thwarted expression. Perhaps sampling her own advice, Georgia encourages Oliver to expel his emotions, saying, “When you feel bad, you go into your room and scream as loud as you can for a minute or two…It’s called ‘catharsis.’” He’s inherited her deadpan wit, but his repressed upbringing explains the fumbling attempts to build a home with Anna.

Hal, by contrast, undergoes an adolescence of sorts—giddily in love, with a new dress sense to boot. Oliver looks on as Hal and Andy (Goran Višnjić) mutter sweet nothings, trade in-jokes, and freely swap gifts (just as, by contrast, he observed his parents’ froideur). There’s a tenderness between Hal and Andy that Oliver’s own relationships lack. Beginners’ lovely non-linear structure plays out like Oliver’s highlights reel of his father’s final days—in which Andy is a prominent part. When Oliver clears out Hal’s house following his death, he does so with efficiency, or so Mills’ quick-cut montage of activities seems to suggest. Oliver now knows the story behind each object in his father’s home. They are not tokens from his childhood, but of Hal’s new life. The detritus of daily activities to most, but to Oliver, Hal’s kin, a breadcrumb trail of identity, a path of better understanding.

In an interview with Collider, Mills said of his upbringing, on which the film is based: “I grew up in a family that was aesthetic and looked right, but it had all these holes and all of this loneliness inside it, behind the look.” Mills buttresses this point in Beginners with his use of stock imagery, and with scenes that contrast between the richness of Hal’s life lived openly gay, and the sterility of his life in the past. We see Hal transition from faceless suit brushing past his wife on the way out to work, to a man whose home has become a meeting point for choir practice, activism, and the occasional fireworks display. This parallels Oliver’s progress as he constructs a scaffolding of friendship and romance from which to build a life. Their parallel hits home the film’s subtle lesson: there’s no calendar by which life can be lived; we end up starting out again, and again, and again.

Beginners ends on a bathetic note—Oliver and Anna sit side by side on his bed. They have fallen apart and come back together. Oliver’s father, his house, everything has gone, leaving behind only the inches of his obituary and his dog. They stare at each other, holding it for a moment before the screen fades to the title cards. It’s an ambiguous, marginally uplifting endnote. As they start out together, the closing lines of W.H. Auden’s poem, The Geography of the House, come to mind: “…we/ leave the dead concerns of/ Yesterday behind us,/ Face with all our courage/ What is now to be.”