Sunday, July 10, 2011

Beginners [2011]

MPAA (R)  Roger Ebert (3 1/2 stars)  Dennis (3 stars)

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert’s review

Beginners (written and directed by Mike Mills) tells a story, semi-autobiographical, of a young man whose father “came out” as gay shortly after the death of the father’s wife (the young man’s mother).  While obviously the circumstances of this story are rather specific (certainly not everyone’s dad comes out as gay after the death of one’s mother), I do believe that pretty much everyone who’s lost a parent could relate, particularly those who lost a parent during their teen or young adult years.

My mother died when I was 24 and my dad was 55.  And both my 20 year old sister and I had to deal with some “surprises” (which looking back _now_, 25 years later, seem not all that surprising after all) with regard to our dad, who was clearly “not quite ready to die yet” and was searching for new life.  So at the time when my sister and I were supposed to be the ones doing the dating and building our lives, suddenly there was our dad doing the same thing.  Yes, it was awkward.  Yes, there were (and arguably still are) some resentments.  But what the heck to do?  In traditional Hindu society, supposedly the wife of the deceased husband was thrown onto the funeral pyre with him (but apparently never the other way around).  But that’s not contemporary tradition, not even in India.  And it seems rather cruel to try to beat down one’s own dad with a hammer with the cry, “No, this is supposed to be _my time_!” 

So one “processes,” “ponders all these things in one's heart,” comes to realize that God is often far more original and surprising with regards to all of our lives than any of us would imagine on our own and one hopefully comes to forgive one’s parent for doing probably what we would have done as well in similar circumstances.  [To finish this aside: Some years after my mother died, my dad remarried (also to a widow) and the two been happily married since.  And what "took some time to get used to," turned out to be, honestly, a very nice blessing].

But I certainly could relate with Mike’s character, named Oliver (and played by Ewan McGregor), a graphic artist in his 30s, single, not particularly successful in his dating life, who, already mourning the death of his mother was "surprised" his dad, Hal, (played by Christopher Plummer) when he told him a few months later that he is gay that he’s been gay all his life even if he always loved his mother and that in these closing years of his life he’d _really like_ to die not just “theoretically gay.” 

A few months later, dad Hal, finds a lover, Andy (played by Goran Visnjic) who’s Oliver’s age and it just doesn’t seem fair. Oliver shares this (and many other things) with his terrier dog, who because he’s a dog and can not talk, basically shrugs.  Fortunately, a woman, Anna (played by Melanie Laurant) does enter into Oliver’s life somewhere in there as well.  But it’s not easy.  None of it is.

Eventually, some years later, Hal comes down with cancer as well.  And Oliver chooses wisely.  Indeed, in all of the relational pain (and there is pain here) Oliver _chooses_ to be kind.  What a wonderful story!

Now a final warning to many readers here:  The one aspect of this movie that proved painful for me as a Catholic Christian to endure was a number of fairly painful, arguably ignorant slights / putdowns of Christianity made throughout the movie.  There’s a good part of me that “gets it” and doesn’t expect much better.  After all, the Catholic Church officially considers homosexuality a “disordered condition” and homosexual acts to be intrinsically sinful and there are Catholic and Protestant Christian groups that go even further in their denunciations of both homosexuality and homosexuals.  So if we make it clear (or our leaders/institutions make it clear) that we don’t particularly like or respect gays, why should we expect to be treated better?  Still one can hope that one day this mutual sniping will come to an end.

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  1. Another reviewer expressed some distress that because Hal remained closeted until after his wife's death, she was denied a chance at happiness of her own. Had he come out earlier, they might have divorced and she would have been free to live a life unburdened by this secret . . . Any thoughts on this?

  2. If I understood both the movie as well as interviews of the writer/director, the wife knew that her husband was gay when they entered into their marriage. And they both chose to remain married until she died.

    I would note here that if one or the other spouse chose to ask for an Catholic annulment in such a case they would probably get it (and this not just in the "liberal" United States, but pretty much everywhere) because if Hal had told his future spouse that he may be gay, there would make for a serious question of whether from the beginning Hal was capable of entering into a marriage as defined by the Catholic Church.

    And even if Hal did not know or suspect that he was gay before entering into marriage but discovered this afterwards, there probably wouldn't be a diocese in the world that would deny him and his wife an annulment if one or the other requested it.

    However, they _chose_ not to divorce (or if they were Catholic to ask for said annulment). And as far as I could see, both from the movie and in the interviews of the director/writer, the two _were happy_ with their choice.