Back at the start of this year, I covered many of the advertisements made by writer/director Mike Mills (as you can tell looking at the comments, it was a blockbuster hit article). Little did I know that that was not enough to scratch my itch over writing about Mills’ work, and his most recent film, 20th Century Women in particular. And so here is a piece about Mills’ work pre-Women. A lengthy piece on just Women will come out hopefully reasonably soon after this one. I pray I won’t have to type the title Thumbsucker as many times in that piece as I do in this one.
Mills began working in the music industry as a graphic designer in the early 90s, designing albums for the likes of the Beastie Boys (he later appeared as “Sir Stewart Wallace” in the Fight For Your Right Revisited short), Phish, They Might Be Giants, and Cibo Matto (Mills was also in the band Butter 08 with members of Cibo Matto, Skeleton Key, and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion; like the other Mike Mills, he played bass). He took the leap from design to music videos in the mid 90s, and his early videos very much feel like the work of a graphic designer. Mills mostly doesn’t stray very far from the completely still image (the biggest outlier from this period is his kinetic performance video for Frank Black’s “Men in Black”, and even that stops for an overhead tableau of Frank Black preparing a sandwich), and retains the at-a-distance hip/coolness of his graphics (in his book Gas Book 11, Mills seems frustrated by how much of his work boils down to “it looks cool”). His video for Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “2 Kindsa Love” plays with that need for coolness in a pretty fun way, showcasing all kindsa love in the most absurd, uncool ways possible (dig that dissolve from an American flag to a kitten), juxtaposed with the roughness of the music and the more traditional “rock band” antics of the band (the best version of this comes when the band is doing a badass walk towards the camera when they’re flanked by refugees from a United Colors of Benetton ad).
Even more obviously the work of a graphic designer is his video for Pond’s “Spokes”, which tells the story of the evolution of a high schooler almost entirely through still photographs. Mills creates a photo-essay of this girl’s life, surveying her room, accessories, neighborhood, and hangout spots, a trick he used in some of his designs before (including Sonic Youth’s Washing Machine album, with Lance Acord taking the photos for both that and this video) and which he would take to some far-out places later.
It would be his three videos for the French electronic band Air that would be a breakthrough for him. Two of the videos don’t stray very far from his graphic designer roots; “Kelly Watch the Stars” is mostly driven by instantly-arresting images of a brightly-colored ping-pong match, Air playing Pong in total darkness, and the titular Kelly ascending into the stars, and “Sexy Boy” literally sees Mills’ drawings for Air’s Moon Safari album come to life to tell a goofy story of a stuffed monkey flying into space.
But it’s the third video, for “All I Need”, that would be what Mills would much later call a “gamechanger” for him. Made at Air’s request as a way of “fucking up” a pretty song, Mills created a documentary short about two skateboarders in love that’s set to the song. The emotions at the center of it are genuinely touching, seeing this couple define love and demonstrate it at every turn, and that kind of humanity was missing from Mills’ earlier work. But maybe even more touching is the way Mills extends his love to the community surrounding them, covering their neighborhood, hangout spots, and rooms in 360-degree pans that make sure to give every small detail its time of day (Mills would use pans quite often in his work from this onto Thumbsucker). And Mills shoots everything in the most beautiful way possible, from this couple sleeping in each other’s arms to a skate park at dusk to even an empty parking garage where the guy practices skateboarding. It’s a thoroughly generous work of art, and that generous spirit would inspire his best works in the future.
If “All I Need” is the skeleton key to Mills’ work as a whole, it weirdly isn’t to a lot of his later video work. Mills’ later music videos are divided between similarly empathetic works and uber-fussy, dispassionate exercises.
The closest thing in effect to “All I Need” here is his video for Everything But the Girl’s “Temperamental”, a sped- and panned-through look at the assembly line of young actresses trying to make something of themselves and failing, whether in commercials or misguided-sounding new adaptations of A Streetcar Named Desire. Tracey Thorn sings “I don’t want you to love me” in the song’s chorus, but her words ring sadly hollow in the face of so many girls who do want you to love them, very badly. Mills hones in on one girl in particular and sees her get carelessly chewed up and spit out by the machinery, barely a blip on the radar in the long run but a tragic case nonetheless.
In a few other videos, Mills finds humanity in the silly and humanizes the literally inhuman. In the video for the Divine Comedy’s “Bad Ambassador”, Mills shows Bigfoot working in a depressing factory and daydreaming about a coworker rollerskating in absurdly skimpy clothing (and a top hat), and manages to take that scenario seriously and even play it for a little bit of pathos at the end.
The idea for his video for Stuart Price (as Les Rhythmes Digitales)’s “Sometimes” is on its face brilliantly silly; a stuffed animal falling off a dresser as suicide. But Mills stubbornly refuses to play these adorable animals grieving and piecing together a troubled life as anything different than humans doing the same (the image of a stuffed animal spilling stuffing everywhere when it slits its wrists is genuinely disturbing), and the result is ultimately kind of moving.
Compare to his video for Mansun’s “Legacy”, which also tells a familiar story (the rise and fall of a rock ‘n roll band) using the silliest tools imaginable, in this case stiff, faceless dolls. But there’s no emotion to be had here, as Mills just wants us to laugh at the images of these dolls who can’t even move to play their instruments, and in turn the ridiculously common rock-band arc these dolls are reenacting.
The video for Pulp’s “Party Hard” is a similar type of parody, emulating the forced cheeriness and bad staging/lighting of 70s variety shows as an ironic counterpoint to a pretty bleak song. The lyrics (even the one about the guy shedding his load “on your best party frock”) are recreated by Cocker and cheerleaders with pasted-on smiles, occasionally in front of garish Pop Art backgrounds, while Mills has fun with arrhythmic cuts and stiff camera movements. And it all builds to the punchline of this being the party-centric version of Hell Cocker sings of in the song, where he talks (and dances) a big game but won’t even be able to go home with a balloon, let alone one of those dancers.
Mills’ most widely-seen video was his one for Moby’s “Run On”, which is very much in the “Kelly Watch the Stars” mode of fussy images and poppy colors (even the drabness of an uncaring office is depicted in swampy greens) helping to tell a silly story, in which Heaven is a self-help company. Before Memento, Mills tells the video’s story backwards, which contributes to its general arch tone (in addition to the big “EARLIER…” used to transition between scenes and the “dialogue” being mouthed and conveyed in subtitles).
His video for Martin Gore’s cover of “Stardust” is maybe the coldest and most brutal thing he’s ever done. It combines scenes of Gore trapped in isolation extreme even for a rock star (Mills shoots him lying in bed like he’s in his coffin, and has only the faintest suggestion of others in the frame with him at any time; the lyrics say that the rock ‘n roll king is dead, and you believe it) with the most clinical synchronized striptease in music video history (done in front of a literal pile of garbage for maximum unsexiness). And even the typically Millsian shots of Gore’s environment are no help, as the only things Mills can find are as dull and lifeless as Gore has become.
But Mills would save some of his most dispassionate work for last. He would take a break from music videos around 2003, presumably to seriously start work on his first feature (more on that film later), and one of his last videos before that break is his entry in the Radiohead omnibus project The Most Gigantic Lying Mouth of All Time. It’s ostensibly for the Kid A standout “The National Anthem”, but the whole song isn’t heard and what is played is literally background noise, as Mills focuses his attention on one face in the crowd reacting to the song. Mills is smushed in the crowd with her, occasionally getting pushed around by the other concertgoers with her (this job must have been a focus puller’s nightmare, as every shove requires refocusing), and shoots her in an uncomfortably tight close-up, when he’s not zooming in even further. There’s even text setting this scene in a time right down to the second, fussily establishing this piece as a document of that moment in that spot. It’s a portrait of music fandom stripped of almost any recognizable traits (including footage of the band, who are only shown at the very end of a trademark Mills pan, done playing and busy resetting for the next song) besides visible passion, and one of the closest things to a music video sans the music we may ever get.
His final entries in the music video form would come three years, with a quartet of videos for Blonde Redhead’s 23 album, which break down music videos into four separate parts; movement, story, emotion, and transformation. The most famous of the videos is the one for “Top Ranking”, where writer/director/performance artist, and Mills’ future wife, Miranda July performs “one pose per second”, and the others see the events of the Madonna “Like a Prayer” video described and not shown, various people crying on cue, and a rainbow making its way across the sky. Mills had pretty much stopped doing music videos in the years before these videos, and they work as a final statement on this medium; delivering all the elements “expected” of a video with none of the constraints.
If “All I Need” seemed to come out of nowhere in the context of Mills’ other music videos, it certainly didn’t in relation to his documentary work. In particular, his first major short film, Deformer, is practically the blueprint for “All I Need”, albeit in a much scrappier, more experimental form. Like that video, its main focus is a skateboarding couple in California, but that focus often expands to covering their town (a notably conservative one, in contrast to the “hipness” of the couple) and the entire skateboarding community around them. In this case, the central couple is painter Ed Templeton and his wife Deanna, and Mills spends plenty of time in their house as Ed paints Deanna in the nude, but he also leaves it to study supermarkets, parking lots, skate parks, and the beach. But here, Ed follows wherever Mills goes, whether he’s physically there or simply reading voice-over, which frequently includes him insulting himself and backtracking (Mills even interrupts Deanna talking glowingly of their relationship with Ed calling himself a “pussy”). The result is an unusual kind of biographical portrait, one which finds its subject’s opinions on whether Bruce Lee would defeat Luke Skywalker with lightsaber and Jedi powers as interesting as his art.
Eating, Sleeping, Waiting and Playing
Given his work in the music business, it’s no surprise that Mills’ first feature-length work (although it’s a borderline case, at almost exactly an hour) would be a music documentary, and one documenting the first tour of his most fruitful collaborator, Air. But the end result is a wonderfully odd duck, something much closer to One Plus One than Gimme Shelter.
As evidenced by “Playing” only taking up one-fourth of the title, the actual performing of music plays a pretty small role in this doc. When Air does play as opposed to doing those other things, the sound is muddy and indistinct, and you maybe get 15 continuous seconds of a song if you’re lucky (no joke, a shot of Mills waiting for a small eternity for the band to open the door to their hotel room for him lasts longer than many of the concert scenes). Initially, Mills seems to be making the documentary a portrait of music in general, asking fans about music’s potential for change and having the band talk about their high-school experiences with music (they loved punk, the Stooges in particular). And then Mills starts asking fans what they think of McDonald’s (one French guy is very into the McFlurry, and wants Mills to try it) and what kind of animals they would be. Soon after, this whole section is revealed to be Mills’ way of parodying the asinine press-junket questions Air get tortured with in one scene, more to amuse himself than for any other reason. And that doesn’t even seem to be working.
On its standalone DVD, this is called a film “about Air on tour”, but that’s kind of a misnomer. It’s really Mills’ own document of his boredom on the road, which eventually calcifies into something almost transcendent. He tries at first to just capture the music, and when that fails to produce much of interest, he goes off in all directions in search of something even moderately intriguing, interviewing fans and people in the French music scene and visiting Air’s recording studio. Few of them are any better, and so he’s left to cut around in the hope that somebody will eventually do something worth the film in the camera. His beloved pans here come off less as a way of showcasing the surroundings than as a defensive mechanism against boredom, searching in vain for something more interesting happening in the area than the ostensible subject of the shot. And the more this goes on, the more the viewer is hypnotized into these rhythms, and what was dull becomes impossibly exciting. As a music documentary, I guess this could be deemed a failure (certainly in regards to the way the actual music sounds), but it’s fascinating in how it warps the techniques of rock docs into experimental film territory. And it also has one of the members of Air babbling about what will happen on the latest episode of Friends.
The Architecture of Reassurance
In 1999, Mills made the leap into narrative work with the short film The Architecture of Reassurance. A riff on Alice in Wonderland, Architecture sees Alice exploring the wonders of a seemingly endless stretch of suburbia, where nothing is as it seems from appearances. Admittedly, “suburbia isn’t as perfect as it seems” is a theme that’s been done to death, but Mills has fun with it as a director. Alice’s red shirt is the only color that isn’t completely bleached-out or all white, with the suburban houses she’s so fond of showing no life whatsoever in comparison. Mills also stages documentary interviews (you can even hear his recognizable, weirdly soothing voice asking the questions) about people’s dream homes in front of and around a bouncy house, and then asks the same question to teenage girls in their N’Sync poster-covered bedrooms.
The short’s main problems occur when Mills the writer missteps. It’s not that Mills’ script is bad; it has its moments, like Alice’s mother telling her upon her leaving “If you see any strangers, tell ’em I said hello”, and a scene where a realtor delivers her typically empty jargon and has a sincere heart-to-heart with Alice at the same time (Mills the director also sells this really well, with the wonderfully startling effect of both speeches laid out on top of each other). It’s just that there are times when The Point is much too bluntly-stated when it was gotten across fine already. Showing Alice to be seeing a friendly mother-daughter discussion through a window when it’s actually an argument is already towing the line, but Mills completely crosses it at the end. Kelli Garner (the lead girl in the “Temperamental” video) shows up as a Smiths-obsessed teenager who spells out in all caps that outsiders aren’t welcome in suburbia and perfection comes at the cost of anything besides the most conservative way of thinking. And then the most Alice in Wonderland-inspired element of the short, some talking gnome figurines who showed up earlier, come back to flat-out tell Alice that the residents of suburbia only seem happy on the outside. It’s a pretty disappointing, pat way of ending an otherwise interesting short, one which generally shows promise.
Mills’ most acclaimed documentary work, Paperboys, is sort of an extension of the documentary parts of The Architecture of Reassurance. Mills travels to the suburbia of Stillwater, Minnesota and interviews six paperboys there, following them on their paper routes but mostly observing them in their homes and with their friends. We get plenty of Mills pans showcasing the possessions of these kids (one pan ends upon the discovery of a life-sized “Stone Cold” Steve Austin cut-out), and Mills even fills the soundtrack with what music they say they listen to (one kid says that he really likes “Insane Down Posse”). He also asks them the same few questions about their job and what will happen to paperboys in the future, and their answers are a mixture of the silly and the quietly profound that Mills presents with no judgment.
Like Architecture, this is focused on suburbia and A Big Point, in this case the way the paperboy has adapted to the 21st century and how these modern paperboys conduct themselves in relation to the popular conception of their job. But unlike Architecture, Mills lets the point grow naturally rather than forcing it in. He lets the kids describe what they like, and what they say certainly runs counter to the Norman Rockwell-type image of the paperboy, but Mills lets this quietly develop over the course of the film rather than shrilly explaining it like in Architecture. And it helps that the ultimate obviousness of his point is coupled with some of the strongest evidence of Mills’ empathy yet. He never mocks the kids or grills them (in his commentary for this, Mills actually regards this as a weakness in one part, where a major family tragedy is obliquely mentioned and not followed up on), and he seems to find joy in everything they do, shooting it all in the most beautiful naturally-lit images possible (the shots of them on their paper routes are astonishingly gorgeous). This has the potential to be some sterile, pedantic screed about kids these days, but Mills’ respect for these kids shines through at every turn and helps make this something more. If only he could have followed this lead more closely for his first turn into feature filmmaking…
The road to making his first narrative feature would be a profoundly tough one for Mills. In 1999, his mother died of cancer (more on her later). That same year, Walter Kirn’s novel Thumbsucker was published, and Mills would later say that he saw himself and his mother in the book’s main characters. He began the process of adapting the book in 2000, and it would take five years before Mills could get a financier and distributor for it, due to the widespread discomfort with its story of a teenager who still sucks his thumb. In the time before it was finally made and released, Mills’ original choice for a composer, Elliott Smith, died (having already recorded three covers for the film), and so did Mills’ father. When it finally premiered at Sundance, it got generally good reception but didn’t go much of anywhere after that, and it would be followed by Mills taking several years off in response to his father’s death. With as tortured as this process must have been for Mills, one could maybe forgive whatever weaknesses appear in the finished product. And alas, there is definitely much here to be forgiven.
I have not read the novel, so I don’t know if this is Mills messing up good source material or being hamstrung by bad source material, but whatever its faithfulness to the book, what it reminds me the most of is Architecture of Reassurance. They share thematic tissue, they share almost the exact same final shot (the main character running in slo-mo with seemingly no destination in mind; amusingly, this shot also pops up in July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know, which played Sundance at the same time as Thumbsucker), and they share weaknesses. But Thumbsucker exacerbates the flaws of Architecture pretty severely, most likely because a). one is a lot less forgiving of something over 90 minutes than they are over 20 and b). Architecture was made by someone younger and less experienced with narrative, and those allowances don’t really exist when you’re pushing 40. Mills has said more recently that he’s kind of embarrassed that he made this specific movie as late in life as he did, and it’s easy to see why; it seems to operate more than a little too close to its protagonist’s maturity level.
It opens well, and Millsy, at least. As in Architecture and “All I Need”, Deformer, and Paperboys, Mills delights in making the environment a character (and not in the facile “New York is almost like a character in the movie” way), and here, before we meet any characters, we see their neighborhood and the construction of housing developments within it. Then we meet people, and things start to fall apart. The film tells the story of Justin (Lou Taylor Pucci), the titular thumbsucker. His parents (Tilda Swinton and Vincent D’Onofrio) try their best to knock the habit out of him, but ultimately it’s a zen orthodontist (Keanu Reeves) who hypnotizes away the thumbsucking. This works, and Justin soon becomes a “model” member of society by getting a girlfriend (Kelli Garner again), becoming the star member of his school’s debate team (taught by Vince Vaughn), and taking prescription drugs. But wouldn’t you know that being “normal” is really not normal at all.
As with Architecture, Thumbsucker is at its very worst when it tries to make A Point, and it tries to make many Points. You see, you shouldn’t chase normalcy, and we’re all incomplete or flawed in some way, and parents are figuring it out just as the kids are, and also sometimes the drugs designed to make you better only make you worse. It feels all pat and obvious, and Mills keeps putting too fine a point on it in his writing (and occasionally direction too, as with the way-too-cutesy “fantasy” sequences). Also as with Architecture, Thumbsucker is very well shot, with its muted colors and natural lighting and Mills’ continued use of quiet pans to emphasize the surroundings (it shares the DoP of much of Mills’ early work, Joaquin Baca-Asay). But unlike Architecture, that’s not nearly enough to sustain this. In fact, the mutedness of the style begins to feel pretty smothering after awhile, especially as it bleeds into other aspects of the film, with the actors falling into the same lethargic rhythms. If the pacing was meant to reflect the depression of many of the film’s characters, it also ends up holding those characters at a distance. It at times almost falls into the hypnotically boring rhythms of Eating, Sleeping, Waiting and Playing, but there it came naturally and served a point, whereas here it can’t help but feel unnatural and put-on. It doesn’t help that it’s scored with a jubilant song score by The Polyphonic Spree that only further points out the sluggish rhythms of the main feature (the handful of songs Smith recorded for the film before he died fit the film’s pacing better;). The whole thing tries for a version of Harold and Maude‘s melancholic but heartfelt deadpan, but the end result just feels like every Sundance flameout from some twentysomething who liked Rushmore.
Okay, I should mention the positives, considering I don’t hate this movie. Admittedly, most of the performances are good, it’s just that they feel like they should leave more of an impression than they end up doing, when instead they start blending into the wallpaper (when you’re not getting much interesting out of goddamn Tilda Swinton, something has gone at least slightly awry). It’s telling that the two standouts are the ones with preestablished rhythms which break slightly from the film’s constricting mutedness. Vince Vaughn is dialed-down here, in that he’s not playing a motormouth, but he’s still got a bit of Vaughniness that, when separated from his normal alpha-douche persona, gets quite a few laughs (the biggest being him buying beer for Justin and then pretending to have changed his mind about it, which was an improv on his part). And Keanu Reeves puts his normal spacey rhythms to great comedic use here, while not mocking or ignoring the humanity of his character. That humanity also goes throughout the film, as Mills definitely maintains the empathy from much of his post-“All I Need” work here, taking every character (even the drugged-up TV star played by Benjamin Bratt who Justin meets in a very strange detour) seriously and not allowing any easy villains. And it has one really great sequence, a rare bit of energy in the film, where Justin and the female members of his debate team fuck around and give each other static shocks in a hotel room. In the commentary, Mills says “I’d like to do a whole movie like this”, and it’s to both our and his benefit that that’s what he would end up doing.
Does Your Soul Have a Cold?
Given Thumbsucker‘s worst moments come in its lazy look at mood-regulating drugs, a whole documentary on that subject from Mills sounds like a nightmare in the making. But thankfully, Mills didn’t go into this project looking to make a polemic, but instead a purely observational look at those taking antidepressants. Specifically, the film follows five subjects who live with depression in Japan, where the concept of depression is still very new and the public’s perception of it is shaped by recent advertising (“Does your soul have a cold?” was the slogan of the most major ad campaign on the subject). Mills patiently observes their daily routines and talks to them about their depression, their lives, and what the titular ad campaign did to their awareness of depression (we always hear his voice asking the questions and never that of his translator, giving every interview an added intimacy). It’s not building towards any catharsis or healing moment for any of these people (none of them end the movie running down the streets of Kyoto with all the excitement in the world like Justin in Thumbsucker), but simply documenting a piece of their lives.
This is Mills’ first work without Joaquin Baca-Asay behind the camera since Deformer a decade before (in his place are two crew members from Thumbsucker, with Mills working with them as a camera operator), and it remains by far the least stylized work in Mills’ oeuvre. Even his previous documentaries boasted gorgeous natural-light cinematography (the shots of the kids on their bikes in Paperboys are kind of awe-inspiring), whereas this makes no effort to present the locations and surroundings as anything but drab and dim. But you can’t completely keep a good Mills down, so we do get some bits of style to liven things up, namely on-screen listings of each subject’s daily drug intake as they’re shown taking the drugs and a focus on some of the items owned by the subjects, shown isolated in still images (Mills would take this technique even further in his future work).
Remember when I said that Mills would get more energetic in his next films? Well, not this one. This is perfectly attuned to the energy levels of its subjects, which is to say its own energy level is near-zero. This works better than it does in Thumbsucker because it derives from the natural lives of the people, rather than Mills enforcing it on characters who might work better in a different kind of movie. Still, if that approach is honest, it still makes this not the most engaging watch in the world, even at around 80 minutes long (maybe Mills works best with documentaries hovering below feature-length, with Eating, Sleeping being an hour and Paperboys 45 minutes). It’s a very admirable film, and a good one, but it doesn’t really go beyond that, unfortunately.
My father passed away in the fall. He had been ill for about nine months but he didn’t act like a sick person. He worked more than ever, dressed stylish, had parties, wrote an essay on religion where Jesus did not die violently on the cross but peacefully of old age in the desert. He also planned his own elaborate funeral and sketched out a few memorials to himself.
– From Mike Mills’ essay in Mike Mills: Humans, 2006
1. Be more positive
2. Try to stop anthropomorphizing the animals I know, or at least do it less.
– From the cover of Mike Mills: Graphics Films, 2009
Going in circles, I like it.
– Georgia Fields
Five years would pass between Thumbsucker and the festival release of Mills’ second film, during which he took a two-year break from directing and Does Your Soul Have a Cold? came and went after a handful of festival screenings. But the inkling of the script for this second film came before that, while he was promoting Thumbsucker and still dealing with the loss of his father the year earlier. And over those years, that script mutated into Beginners, which is about that and so much more. The finished film received a much stronger response than Thumbsucker did, with it even getting Christopher Plummer his first Oscar at 82 years old (that Mills wasn’t also nominated for the Best Original Screenplay Oscar that year is a travesty of a mockery of a sham, but I digress).
The story of Mills’ father really does seem to cry out to be documented. Paul Mills was closeted for almost all his life up to death of his wife (and Mills’ mother) Jan from cancer in 1999. But he would only have five years to celebrate his coming out, as he too would die of cancer in 2004. It’s very easy to imagine a broad, weepy dramedy of this story, maybe with mincing stereotypes the son learns to accept and teary-eyed death-bed confessions. Mills avoids those specific pitfalls, but more remarkably, he makes the personal genuinely universal.
The film starts in 2003, with graphic designer Oliver Fields (Ewan McGregor) dealing with the immediate aftermath of his father Hal (Plummer)’s death (Mills’ intent here was definitely not to make the autobiography hard to parse). He’s already afraid of commitment, and so this depletes him even further until he’s dragged to a costume party by his friends, where he meets Anna (Melanie Laurent), who’s beguiling even when stricken with laryngitis. They then begin a tentative courtship. But the movie doesn’t stay there, as it intercuts that with Oliver’s last year or so with his father, and his limited time spent living the life he wanted to live. And it also throws in flashbacks to Oliver in the 70s being raised by his flighty mother Georgia (Mary Page Keller). And often it becomes completely unstuck in time, with Oliver narrating little visual essays about him, his parents, and life in the 20th and early 21st centuries. And also there’s a talking dog.
Thumbsucker was a fundamentally meek movie. Even as it covered a variety of themes and issues, all it could really muster was a limp shrug at whatever it brought up. Beginners does not have that problem, because it goddamn commits to saying what it wants to say. It aims to show a small history of sadness (as opposed to the mammoth, existence-spanning “History of Sadness” Oliver creates at one point in the film), tracking it back from Oliver to his parents and ultimately to the entire world around the parents. As Oliver describes their backstories, he also describes tales of persecution of Jews in America, gay men being locked up by the “Vice Squad”, and the death of Harvey Milk. Like in much of his previous work, Mills aims to reveal things about his subjects through their environments, but before, that meant focusing on their possessions. Here, Mills shows the historical environments these people inhabited, what the sun and the President looked like at the time, and how the events of the time impressed on them and eventually on their children. Early in the film, Oliver has a “talk” with Hal’s Jack Russell terrier Arthur about his personality being bred by forces out of his control, but it really describes Oliver too, a man afraid to commit because his parents were in a loveless marriage, which can be traced back to Georgia getting kicked off the swim team for being Jewish and Hal being told by his therapist that homosexuality is a curable illness. It’s not just him, as we see Anna continually dealing with the impression left by her depressed father and Hal’s lover Andy (Goran Visnjic) talking about how his father rejecting him following his coming-out made him attracted to older men. Even poor Arthur will never get over Hal, always running towards lookalike old men.
If that all sounds like it has the potential to be hideously depressing, it’s not. Lucky for us, Mills followed through on his promise to make a whole movie as stylistically and generally exciting as the hotel room scene in Thumbsucker. Mills isn’t above indulging in pure silliness, including Oliver, in costume as Freud, psychoanalyzing the Wicked Witch of the West, Oliver and Anna rollerskating to their hotel room, Oliver spraypainting banal events of the recent past on buildings (like Britney Spears being the most Googled thing in 2003, or the invention of Chicken McNuggets in 1981), and, best of all, Arthur communicating to Oliver through subtitles (it turns out he’s as smitten with Anna as Oliver is). Mills also tones down the fussiness of his direction that helped to sink Thumbsucker, doing away with the meticulous pans in favor of unshowy, naturally-lit handheld images for the present sequences and lots of simple locked-down shots for the past sequences. The images are handsome, to be sure, but they’re much less than the point than they were in Thumbsucker (the editing carries the brunt of the film’s overt stylization here). And most importantly, he learned since Thumbsucker not to smother his actors, as the performances here are all alive in ways they mostly weren’t in that film. Even Oliver, who seems to be the dictionary definition of “sad-sack”, is given such charm and life by McGregor here, and his chemistry with Laurent is off-the-charts. And Plummer does especially great work not playing Hal too saintly, showing him living for the pleasures of house music and younger men (he and Visnjic are an absolutely adorable couple too) while also never quite acknowledging the pain he inflicted on both his wife and child for living a lie for that long.
And then there’s the empathy. That wasn’t a problem with Thumbsucker or much of Mills’ other work, but here it’s taken to new heights. There are no villains in this film, only people trying their best in often bad circumstances, and Mills clearly loves all of these people even as they flounder. Obviously, the main trio of Oliver, Anna, and Hal are treated with utmost respect, but Mills’ affection shines just as bright on Andy, whose absolute sweetness is kind of heartbreaking in context, on Georgia, whose lonely existence is shown quietly but so sympathetically throughout her few scenes (the way she holds still after Hal kisses her says so much with so little), and on the many friends Hal makes after coming out, both gay men and hospital workers (Hal’s last scene is even opposite his caretaker, rather than Oliver). This is a movie that’s generous any and all of the people that pass on-screen in it, and that spirit is contagious even as the film gets terribly sad.
And just think, he followed this up with a movie that makes this look like Thumbsucker!