It's easy to find enthusiastic love songs - if you throw a dart at the Billboard chart you're probably going to hit one. Ambivalent love songs, however, are a lot more rare and thus finding them takes a bit more work. I've put in those man hours because songs like John Prine's A Good Time mean so much more to me than most generic "ooh baby I love you so" songs ever could. If you aren't familiar with that song, the chorus goes "I had no idea what a good time would cost / Till last night when I sat and talked with you". Although those lyrics might sound a bit cynical, I think that they get at what love actually is in a deep way. The truth is that real love is invigorating, but it's also risky, because it demands that you be vulnerable, and once you've accepted the joys of loving someone you have to accept the potential grief of losing them. I like works of art that admit that the highs and lows of life are intricately intertwined, and that emotionally powerful moments can give your life meaning but they can also give you no end of pain.
Which is why I love Beginners so much. This is a movie about multiple types of love, and how all of them offer intense comfort and exact steep costs. Beginners intercuts between two time periods in a man named Oliver Field's life. There is a period where his father Hal is slowly dying, and there's a period a few months after his father's funeral where Oliver is starting a new romantic relationship with an actress named Anna he meets at a costume party. The first period might sound very dark and the second very light, but they actually share a bittersweet tone. Hal was in the closet when Oliver was growing up, and as a result he was distant and unemotional parent. Once he comes out to the world Hal finds it easier to be more open with his son, so the pair starts to grow closer together - but of course, Hal is also dying, which makes his newfound sweetness a bit hard to appreciate. Oliver's budding romance is similarly complicated, because Oliver needs human contact to help him get over the grief of his father's death, but he also doesn't know if he can open himself up given how shellshocked he is, and Anna has her own baggage, too.
Beginners is a very tender movie that understands how complicated human relationships can be. It doesn't gloss over the mistakes that Hal made as a parent, but it also recognizes that as a gay man in 1950s America he didn't have a lot of options. It also shows the flipside, because once Hal announces that he's always been gay, Oliver begins to see that maybe he didn't understand his father as well as he thought he did. Oliver probably made the mistake that a lot of children make and assumed that he knew everything about both of his parents even though he had never spent that much time wondering who they really were. It also compares Oliver's grief over his father's death with Anna's ongoing problems with her emotionally manipulative father, and it implicitly asks whether it's better to have a dead father you love or a still living father you can barely deal with. All of the love that's depicted in Beginners is genuine and deeply felt - but it's also a lot trickier than the sort of love you would hear about in a pop song.
Don't let all my talk about death and grief fool you: Beginners is not a sad movie, because it's told with humanistic warmth. You will watch an old man die, but you will watch him die with dignity, surrounded by the people who love him. You will see his son mourn him, but you will see him try to transmute that sadness into self depreciating works of art. Yes, there is a heaviness at the center of this movie, but it's an open hearted heaviness that permits little moment of gratitude and generosity to pop up in the middle of very sincere grief.
That really jibes with my own personal experience of losing my father. That sort of loss is such an overwhelming experience, and it tosses you into an emotional swamp where you can't quite tell what you're feeling or what you should be feeling, but you know you're feeling something. But even in the worst of it I still had some perspective; even at my saddest I was still glad that I got to know my father and that he was the man he was. When I look back at that time in my life, I find that my memories are both precise and fuzzy: my subjective feelings are etched deeply into my brain, but I don't really have the words to explain them to other people. That's a big part of why I'm so impressed with Beginners, since it navigates this amorphous and overwhelming event with with such precision and grace. I'm not exactly sure how writer/director Mike Mills manages to show how muddled that experience is with such precision, but I'm glad that he did, because it really resonated with me.
Beginners is a film that cycles that is joyful and morose in equal measures, which makes sense, because it is ultimately making the point that life is equal parts endings and beginnings. Actually, Beginners is more nuanced than that, since it also admits that life is also full of ongoing struggles with things we wish would just end already and premature deaths of things we wish could go on forever. And also there's a whole bunch of things that might be starting or they might be ending and one way might be better than the other but who knows which is which?
If that sounds perplexing - well, it is, because the human heart is not particularly simple instrument. There's nothing wrong with a good pop ballad, but they tend to keep the heart warming parts and the heart breaking parts of love completely separate, but while that's easy to do in a poem that's almost impossible to do in real life Beginners depicts emotional attachments with a certain amount of ambivalence, but it does so because it has a mature and sincere eye for the subject, and also because it doesn't particularly want to pander to the popular notion that love is naturally neat and clean. And all I can say is: God bless it for that.