Review: Beginners

Beginners screenshot

Year: 2010 | Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

So as with both of writer-director Mike Mills’ films that I had seen prior to this one — 20th Century Women and C’mon C’mon — Beginners impacted me in such an unusually specific way, as if Mills has some sort of insight directly into my life and can write about my experiences sometimes before I even experience them myself. What I didn’t expect was that the hyper-specific experience I had with this film would not revolve around the human characters’ relationship with each other, but rather the relationship between the main character and a dog.

Yeah, this is gonna be one of those personal reviews that I know you all love so much (you tell me whether or not that statement was meant to be sarcastic). This one will deal with the death of a family member, so consider this a light content warning.

On April 22, 2021, my grandmother died of COVID-19 at the age of 80. She had tested positive for the virus fewer than ten days beforehand, but because she had suffered from kidney disease for over fifteen years, the illness basically shut down her kidneys immediately, and the rest of her vital organs soon followed. It happened so quickly that I was unable to make arrangements to get the time off work to make the hour trip back to my hometown, and even if I had, it’s unlikely that I would have been allowed into the hospital to see her. She was only in the hospital for a couple of days before she was placed on a ventilator, then only a couple of days after that, she was gone. The next time I saw her was in the casket at her funeral.

When I was a kid, my grandparents were my entire world. My parents worked all the time and so my grandma and grandpa basically co-parented my younger sister and I until we were (barely) old enough to take care of ourselves. During the summers off of school, particularly, we would spend the bulk of the weekdays at their house, where my grandfather would watch us while my grandmother went to work. This was fine by me; those long summer days were a welcome retreat from a stressful, poor and often abusive environment at home.

When I was 12, my family relocated to a house directly across the street from my grandparents and naturally our relationship deepened even further. By this time, of course, my parents relied on them less to help take care of us since I was now old enough to look after myself and my sister, but I was also now old enough to interact with my grandparents as an actual person, and appreciate my grandpa’s stories from being stationed in Germany during the early days of the Cold War, and to share films and music with my grandmother, and have actual adult conversations during meals. It was during this time that my staunchly pro-union grandfather would begin introducing me to the progressive viewpoints that define my political stances to this day. My grandparents were, to me, an introduction to being an adult that I didn’t get in my home across the street, where I wasn’t encouraged to ask questions or have my own opinions about anything.

By the time my grandpa passed away in 2014, I was 23 and living in the city that I now consider my adoptive hometown, about an hour’s drive away from the town where I grew up. Unlike with my grandmother seven years later, I was lucky enough to be able to spend several days with my grandpa before he died, and I was there when it happened. I was part of the planning process for his memorial service, and I stayed with my grandmother for about a week afterward to help her get her affairs in order and get back on her feet before returning to the city. It was a painful and difficult time in our lives, of course, but that pain was somewhat mitigated by the fact that I was able to say goodbye to my grandfather and to be able to celebrate his life with my grandmother as we worked together to make sure that her life didn’t fall apart without him.

In the seven years that followed, I was closer to my grandmother than really anybody else during that time. As I expect is true a lot of times under these circumstances, most of the rest of the family was “too busy” to make time for a lonely old widow, but I made sure that I stayed in constant contact with her and made the trip out to her house as often as I could, not only because it was the right thing to do, but also because she was genuinely one of my favorite people in my life.

When she died, it was much different than when my grandpa passed away. Obviously, her death being so sudden and not being able to say goodbye were major factors in that, but I also had to come to terms with the fact that both of the people that I considered parents just as much (if not more than) my own parents, and who were the only people in my childhood that had shown me nothing but kindness and love, were both gone. I had my grandma in the immediate aftermath of my grandpa’s death, but now, as much as my incredible fiancée tried to play that role for me following the loss of my grandma, it just wasn’t the same.

But — and finally getting to my point and the tie-in to Beginners — my grandmother did have a dog. A little five-pound, six-year-old yorkiepoo named Boo. She’s a yappy little thing that is barely housebroken and doesn’t really listen at all and is the most defiantly independent dog I think I’ve ever met, but she also wouldn’t hurt a fly and loves to play and snuggle and be held and take naps on your lap.

When my grandma died, there was a brief discussion about what would be done with Boo, with no especially attractive options on the table. I wasn’t convinced that either my dad or my uncle would have the time or the patience to take care of her the way that my grandma had and give her the kind of home that she was used to, but my fiancée and I already had a dog at home who had a spotty track record with getting along with other dogs, especially if they’re female. So as much as I felt that we were the option otherwise best equipped to take care of her, and I much as I would have loved having another dog in my life, I was convinced that we couldn’t take her. As you can probably guess, it was my fiancée who stepped in and assured me that everything would be fine, and even if it was a major hassle or inconvenience in our lives, we had to do what was best for Boo. It’s what my grandma would have wanted.

And so here we are, more than a year later, and lo and behold, everything turned out fine. The dogs (mostly) get along, and Boo seems happy and healthy in her new environment. She barks way too much and pees on the floor way too often, and shreds any piece of paper she can get her teeth on all over the rug, but she’s a part of our little family now and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

She also has me wrapped around her little paw because every time I look at her, I think about my grandma. In Beginners, when Oliver (Ewan McGregor) tried to leave his dad’s (Christopher Plummer) dog (Cosmo) alone and he cried and barked until Oliver had no choice but to bring him along, I felt that in my bones. I know what it’s like to feel that connection between a loved one who is no longer with us and their former pet. In the early days of Boo living with us, my fiancée would get miffed at me for cutting Boo too much slack for the bad things she would do, but it was far too soon to explain to him that disciplining her would feel like disciplining my grandma, especially when I know how crazy that sounds. As we’ve all adjusted to our new living arrangement, it’s become easier for me to treat Boo more equally to our other (frankly better behaved) dog, but I still think about my grandma whenever Boo curls up on my lap or brings me her toy to play, and I know that at least for the next several years, a special little part of my her is going to live on inside of Boo. It’s the greatest gift that I could hope for.

I know that this a really long, personal post to show how I relate to what actually amounts to a relatively small detail in Beginners, but to me, that’s the magic of all of Mills’ films that I’ve seen so far. He has such a remarkable talent for drilling into the core humanity of every single element of his films, and thus directly into the hearts and souls of his audience.

Language: English
Genre: Drama, Comedy, Romance
Runtime: 1 hr. 45 min.
Rating: R

Director: Mike Mills
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Mélanie Laurent, Cosmo, Goran Visnjic

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