Sunday, July 17, 2011


I'm amazed at the spiritual riches available in theaters this summer. I'll save "The Tree of Life" (10) for a future review (except to tell you not to miss it on the big screen)--but there are two others hanging on in theaters in Portland that you should not miss.

"Beginners" (9.5) maintains a remarkably light touch while telling a story with layers of deep sadness. In fact, part of what I loved about it was the sense that a clear-eyed experience of life contains not only grief but also whimsy and sweetness.
At its center is Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a man in his late-30s who has recently lost his father after an extended bout with cancer. Four years earlier, Oliver lost his mother, also to cancer (I suspect we are onto something here), and shortly thereafter his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), revealed that he was gay. Not only Hal's death but, more particularly, his last four years of life--in contrast to the 44 years that he was married to Oliver's mother, Georgia--seem to have left Oliver lost in grief and confusion. For in that last four years, he saw a father he had never known--joyfully reveling in life outside the closet where he has lived so many years. Hal found a younger boyfriend and a whole community of gay friends. He changed his wardrobe and went to clubs and joined a book group. Even as his health deteriorated, he embraced life with deepening fervor and optimism.

This is not the father Oliver knew growing up. We see from flashbacks that Hal wasn't around much in Oliver's childhood. Oliver spent most of his time with Georgia (Mary Page Keller), whose quirkiness, in retrospect, barely masks her deep loneliness. Both of Oliver's parents maintained that they loved each other--indeed, Hal believably insists on that even in his last years. But their evident distance from each other has left Oliver unsettled, even more so having seen the warmth and intimacy and hopefulness of which it turned out Hal was capable.

But this is not a didactic "issue" film. Its observations are revealed with subtlety and tenderness, without implausible explanatory speeches. Yet I can't think of a film that conveys more profoundly the costs of living in the closet (in whatever sense--Hal's closet isn't the only kind). One sees how sacrificing his essential nature hollowed out Hal, and also left Georgia, and Oliver, bereft. Each endures the kind of loss that is both profound and barely perceptible, the kind that one can go decades without ever acknowledging or naming, even to oneself.

Oliver arrives at his late thirties unable to trust that intimacy is possible, a string of failed relationships in his wake. But shortly after Hal's death, Oliver meets Anna (Melanie Laurent), a lovely French actress who shares his perceptiveness and sense of whimsy. They share moments of wonder and fun, until both of them hit a wall of fear and uncertainty that each has learned to expect from relationships. The film's joys involve them navigating their first baby steps toward intimacy, instructed by the example of the courage Hal discovered in his later years.

Writer-director Mike Mills--reportedly drawing from his own life--maintains a tone of such sincerity and truthfulness that details that would seem too precious in a lesser film (Oliver's narration, his cartoons depicting a "history of sadness," his ongoing conversations with his father's grieving Jack Russell terrier, a newly discovered interest in graffiti) serve as convincing vehicles for conveying Oliver's inner life. Ewan MacGregor does his best work since "Trainspotting," conveying, often wordlessly, Oliver's sadness and watchfulness. He is matched by all three of the important people in Oliver's world. Christopher Plummer is a revelation as Hal, who we see only in his latter years but who manages to embody both Hal's newfound youthfulness and also his years as a stoic, respectable man. We see Georgia only in flashbacks to Oliver's childhood, and Mary Page Keller evinces her off-kilter beauty and the origins of Oliver's use of whimsy as a defense against despair. And Melanie Laurent (the amazing female lead in "Inglourious Basterds") is again wonderful here, the perfect embodiment of a woman who, like Oliver, is both an old soul and an arrested one.

There are similar riches to be found in "Buck" (9), a wonderful documentary about a renowned horse trainer who has a lot to teach people, whether or not they are trying to work with horses. Buck Brannaman was something of a trick roper child star in the rodeo world with his older brother Smokie, but both were subjected to daily and brutal beatings by their sadistic father. The beatings increased when his mother died (Brannaman was still quite young), until he was finally placed in foster care. Because of his early experiences with brutality, Brannaman has a deep understanding of what it means to fear for one's life--and this understanding has shaped his work with horses, and people.

As a young man, Brannaman came into contact with Ray Hunt, one of the founders of the National Horsemanship movement. Though skeptical at first, Brannaman quickly recognized the power of working with animals from a place of caring and trust-building rather than fear and control. He built on what he learned to become a master at it. As a childhood friend who also works with horses puts it, "We all have our bag of tricks--but Buck has an arsenal."

I am not a horse person myself--in fact, as it happens, as a child I was bucked off of every horse or mule I mounted, and I haven't tried since I was a teenager. (I imagine Brannaman would have something to say about that.) But watching this film was for me like watching the work of a brother or kindred soul. Indeed, we were born the same year and I think we came to similar understanding by similar means. As Brannaman himself puts it, people come to him with horse problems, but he ends up helping the horses with people problems. Brannaman's work with horses is his means toward spiritual understanding; he understands how energy works, and how to engage with another creature in a manner that acknowledges and respects that creature's essential nature. This leads him to insights that make him look like a miracle worker--horse people are astonished at what he can do after only a few minutes with a horse. In a sense, he is a miracle worker, but really, he is just remarkably present and clear and able to work with what is right in front of him. That seems miraculous because it is so rare.

The film is a revelation mostly because Brannaman is himself so inspiring. He is full of pearls of wisdom, able to quickly size up both people and horses and identify where they are stuck or what is ailing them. He is present with what his life has taught him and open-handed with his own lessons for others. And he is a student himself; he comments that when he started out, he thought it was about learning to train colts, but "come to realize, it's not about that at all." Indeed.

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