Beginners (2010)

The strongest part of Mike Mills’ second feature film is not the relationship between a dying gay man and his son, Oliver, or even between Oliver and the enigmatic woman he falls in love with. It is the part that pertains to Oliver’s relationship with his mother, Georgia. In the flashbacks to his youth, we see her unhappiness (she is married to a gay man who is largely absent), and her precocious young son sees it, too. The flashbacks pertaining to their relationship form no more than 15 minutes of the film, and I wished that the film was entirely about that. More than anything else in the film, we glean from that relationship the source of Oliver’s inability to commit to love. Watchful and protective of his mother, he develops a particular and cynical view of love: unrequited, brave, full of absence and pretense.

It is also one of the most memorable parts of the film because of the terrific Mary Anne Keller, who plays Georgia. She has a strong, expressive face and body, and she plays Georgia with a muted sadness and defiant strength. I thought immediately of the film version of The Hours, and Julianne Moore’s Laura Brown, whose son sees beyond her manners and her homemaking ability to recognize her sorrow. Where Laura is fragile and resigned Georgia is tough and pragmatic. In both films, however, the sons are more profoundly affected by their mothers’ loneliness than they care to admit, and so they suffer greatly in love as adults. They seem always to be in a state of beginning all over again.

Beginners. Dir. by Mike Mills. Olympus Pictures and Parts and Labor, 2010. In English and French.