The Personal is Political – Reflections on Mike Mills film Beginners


Just some reflections that I tied into a personal zine I wrote some years ago. If you’d like to read a proper movie review for the film, check this out.

I read a great review of this and his wife’s film ‘The Future’ which talked about how both films released at the same time explored what it meant to settle down and trust in each other after living whole separate lives, but sadly can’t find it.

The director’s father really had just died of cancer a year after his mother died and he came out as gay, which Christopher Plummer really amazingly pulled off and had my heart go out to him.




We didn’t go to this war, we didn’t have to hide to have sex, our good fortune allowed us to feel a sadness our parents didn’t have time for, and a happiness that I didn’t see in them, we didn’t know how we learnt the stories in our heads, but sometimes they stopped running and I can really see Anna’s eyes in 2003

I am someone obsessed with being historically conscious, pinning down every significant moment as to what it represents to me, but I know that is a learned tool to not be dismissed in conversation, which is entirely different to what I want in love.

When my first love asked me to pin down what our relationship meant to me, I naively said ‘why can’t it be about eyes and smiles’.

That is why I see myself in the shoes of both these star-crossed lovers, fighting to understand what it means to be human. The First is Oliver who knows about gay-pride but never really knew the very ‘real’ part of his father being gay, up until 6 months after his mother dies at age 75, so there is a disconnect.

The latter is Anna, who loves the silent discussion, what she calls ‘magic,’ that which is unexplainable about people from our individual perspective. It reminds her she is free, and reminds her she can never ‘have’ the other person.

A very intimate moment right before they kiss for the first time, he is really enjoying the touch of her hand stroking his cheek, when she turns the moment into a joke by squidging his mouth up and rougheling his hair (subverting the ascetic beauty), he immediately laughs without feeling embarrassed. He see’s something in her that is worth risking being completely vulnerable too.

They are both acutely aware of how stale things could become by falling into the patterns of their parents, they enjoy some of the soppy couple experiences but always by making fun of each other, whilst doing it. They stay spontaneous by railing against anyone living on autopilot who shows a robotic set of behaviours, and perform righteous civil disobedience in the opportunist, situationist and anarchist tradition.

You can tell they both need strict monogamy but there’s no subtle keeping each other in line, there is an implicit knowledge between each other and the viewer that the potential threat to their relationship isn’t an outside force pulling them apart, it’s what’s buried inside dragging them down. They are so careful with themselves, because they don’t even know what they’re doing falling for one another, no other relationship setting but that of the survivors of trauma could have that intensity.

The problems with their parents are so open to Freudian interpretation; Oliver has to replace his father as caretaker to his mother’s unfulfilling relationship to his gay father, and Anna is forced into a special relationship with her father where she is the only one he tells his deepest secrets of wanting to commit suicide to.

Oliver’s mother implicitly teaches the patriarchal gender divide in the family when talking about their line of descendants in Judaism. The father has no Jewish blood in him so he is emotionless; she has half of their history of suffering, so she has some emotions. In the next scene Oliver has to lead his mother out of the art gallery because she was scaring the other visitors, she chastises him for acting like the people that go see his father’s exhibit, peg holing him as following in his father’s footsteps.

But jumping forward to the present context, when he meets Anna who’s a full-blooded Jew, it doesn’t have any significance to how they act or how good they are to each other. Patriarchy is irrelevant and all that fear of ‘where do I belong is confined to history, the viewer can only hope sexism goes with it.

Beginners is about 2 almost frail characters, nether are great examples for facing conflict and adversity but what I believe the director hopes to record is the shift from a world where oppression was palpable, people are on the streets not because they want to join a single-issue campaign, they’re really fighting for their lives, not to have to be forced into hiding; to a future where even in the tiniest part of the world it is ‘tolerated’ to be gay or Jewish or any other minority.

Through the characters role playing, they endeavour to answer each other indirectly, it is clear more can be said in an ironic way, which speaks to the real reason behind the question, whenever fear appears to be creeping up on them, they shift effortlessly into an imaginary story they create together, using imaginary props and elaborate anecdotes, defining the parameters of a safe space in which both have time to conquer their imaginary demons and return to the real.

We never hear them tell each other the stories of specific events that shaped them, any facts about the time they grow up in are given to us in scrapbook style pictures that flash up on the screen, we are unable to judge how well they view history, we are fed pure subjective memories, in that way we have to choose which is more relevant to us, love of the human or the fantasy.