Arthur the dog wins for most captivating character in Mike Mills' Beginners (2010). The adorable Jack Russell terrier shares the screen in almost every scene with Ewan McGregor's Oliver, who has just lost his recently-out gay father to cancer (and hence inherited Arthur). Arthur provides an apt counterpoint to Oliver, who at 38 is stricken with grief, inconsolably alone, and a beginner at love. The obedient companion, on the other hand, can't be left alone for a second and instead trails after Oliver all the time--his love of humans and family is unbreakable. And while Oliver is dour and melancholy, going so far as to doodle a series of drawings he calls "the history of sadness," Arthur's longing eyes show the simple, selfless grief and love that Oliver wishes he could reach.
I applaud Beginners. Christopher Plummer is the definition of stately as a dying gay man trying to get the most out of the life he has left. McGregor is convincing when portraying the confusion and pain of realizing that his parents never truly loved each other--and how that makes him sabotage any romantic connection he has. Plus, the non-linear storytelling and pale cinematography achieve a certain nostalgia that so many of us feel towards our childhoods and past relationships.
What moved me about this film was the intimacy in its moments. I'm talking specificity here. Many films try to achieve universal emotions by leaning on dramatic exaggerations--think of Inception, when Cobb's world literally crumbles when he says goodbye to Mal for the last time--but it's nice to see details hint at those emotions instead. For example, at one point Oliver comes into his living room to see his father and his lover napping on the floor, and his father smiles and waves quietly. That is an intimate moment of love, no sweeping music or shattering imagery needed. So when Oliver inches towards those moments with new love interest Anna (and fumbles), his characterization is inherently deeper.
More than anything, though, Beginners reminded me that it's ok to be a beginner in love of all sorts--romantic, familial, friendly. If a 78-year old man can bravely venture into an actively gay life so late, we can all muster the courage to fill our lives with love, however awkward, risky, or intimidating it may be.