So-called quirky romance movies aren’t unusual any more.
It seems like every year, there’s a new Joseph Gordon-Levitt or Michael Cera, featuring pretty skinny, somewhat socially awkward, weird indie protagonists.
But Mike Mills’s more adult film, “Beginners,” doesn’t adhere to the quirky romance formula.
The film opens with the somewhat average-looking, but handsome, Oliver (Ewan McGregor) Fields, as he cleans out his dead father Hal’s house.
Pill bottle after pill bottle is emptied into the toilet. Then Oliver, dog in tow, walks to the dumpster to throw out his father’s junk.
He goes back inside, and the scene ends.
It’s nighttime, and Oliver, surrounded by friends, holds a microphone recorder up to a man wearing a hardhat and safety goggles.
“This is for our friend, Hal Fields. Hal, we love you,” the man says into the microphone.
The man, who the audience later learns is Hal’s gay lover, runs over to a bunch of fireworks and lights them.
Cue old-timey music and pretty fireworks.
These somewhat choppy cuts are common throughout “Beginners,” and it’s one of the film’s original quirks.
While the main storyline progresses linearly, present time is interrupted by flashbacks like this one.
Along with the flashbacks, the audience gets these strange information sessions – not only about Oliver’s life and family, but also about the history of the session’s time period.
The normal movie will be playing along, Oliver will begin narrating in a detached monotone, and the screen will go black.
“This is what the sun looks like in 1955.” A black-and-white still of the sun appears on-screen.
“These are what pets look like.” Old photos of pets appear.
Oliver continues this brief general historical slideshow about the ‘50s, eventually touching on his family’s history.
That history includes how his parents were married for 40 plus years, how his mom died of cancer, and how his dad, six months after her death, came out as gay. And finally, how his father died of cancer four years after coming out.
After his father’s death, Oliver is obviously depressed – he spends time speaking to his dog (the dog’s thoughts are shown in subtitles) and shutting out his friends.
But things start looking up when Oliver, dressed as Freud, meets Anna (Mélanie Laurent) at a costume party.
It’s clear that both (mainly Oliver) have emotional baggage, which casts a somber mood over their otherwise good relationship.
Meanwhile, as the two slowly grow as a couple, the audience is shown more background – flashbacks to Oliver’s childhood interspersed with snippets of his sick father.
Oliver says to Anna sometime later in the film that he feels as if he doesn’t believe his relationships will work, and as these flashbacks unfold, Oliver’s reservations towards the almost-too-perfect Anna (French actress, cute, well-off), become understandable.
And Hal’s transformation into a gay man also plays an indirect role in the two’s relationship.
These unconventional storytelling techniques make “Beginners” interesting.
The audience is shown the entire picture – Hal’s later life and his childhood.
Other, smaller quirks, like Oliver’s dialogue with his cute Jack Russell Terrier (Cosmo), add to the film’s charm.
It’s impressive that “Beginners” is only Mills’s second film, but there’s an obvious progression from his more juvenile debut “Thumbsucker” – the story of one of those skinny, awkward teenagers.
“Beginners” is a melancholy, unique, quiet romantic drama.