Like many morons, I want to be a filmmaker (hahahahaha, sniff, sniff, cry, moan, bawl, question God’s existence, eat, cry, eat more, etc.) I try to watch as many films as I can but I know I don’t watch enough.
I have many influences and many films I love, but maybe only a handful that have really affected me and stay with me constantly. The last film that did this for me was Beginners.
It was 2011, I was living in Chicago. It was a very, very strange time in my life. I graduated about seven months earlier with two undergraduate degrees and a masters, I was working at CVS, a film I had co-directed was in the middle of editing and I had no clue if it worked. My wife just found out she was getting a job in Los Angeles, the one place I never wanted to live. And much to my regret, I was being a shit about it. To say I was lost would be a horrible cliché but probably true.
We saw it at the Century Centre Cinema. There was a Borders closing across the street. It made me sad knowing it was full of employees that would soon be unemployeed, a hallow building standing as a testament to a time we’d go to stores to purchase books, music, and movies. I spent a lot of time at the Borders in Norman, Oklahoma during college. Those were simpler times. “I’m going to buy these books and these DVDs because my student loan money that I’ll never regret taking came in and life is good!”
I wish I knew how to make a film like Beginners. It’s so complex, so simple, so true. Funny and sad. It is just perfect to me. And Arthur, the dog, is such a great companion not only to his owner, Oliver, but to the audience. He isn’t a gimmick and he isn’t just there as a joke. He asks such simple yet poignant questions. He is our once innocent selves. (Upon re-reading this last sentence, I sorta wanted to punch myself. Sorry.)
The film explores happiness and love, two feelings that are hard to separate. Is it love if you’re not happy? Is happiness required to feel love? And how can we be happy? What does it for us?
Oliver doesn’t know what will make him happy. He’s lost his mother, his father is dying and just revealed he is gay. He’s alone. He has a job he doesn’t necessarily love but doesn’t hate. He wants to be happy but just doesn’t know how.
Towards the beginning of the film, he meets Anna at a party. She can’t talk due to an illness, but they have a conversation between him and her notepad. At one point, she asks, “Why are you at a party if you’re sad?”
That hit me very hard because I’ve been in that situation plenty of times. I was at a party not because I wanted to be but because I thought I had to be. We’re told these are times to meet people, to make friends, to talk with someone you like, to maybe exchange phone numbers or be asked to become Facebook friends. We’re taught that being social is important to life, important to being successful, to being happy. I hated it. I hated every party until I became too drunk to care.
But more than just that one line stuck with me. To me, the film is about how much work you have to put into life. Nothing comes easy to most people. It’s hard to be happy. In fact, I’d argue that the pursuit of happiness is the hardest job we will ever undertake (and one of Will Smith’s finest performances.)
But it’s worth it.
I could go on for much longer but I’ll end it with the film’s ending. Anna and Oliver are together but nothing has really changed. Their lives are still messy, they still have their differences, and we don’t know if they’ll stay together. But in that very moment, they are happy. And so am I. They’ve worked hard and they deserve this moment. What will happen tomorrow? Who knows. If you know me or have seen some of my films, I am attracted to endings that don’t satisfy what might happen but what did.
Little Miss Sunshine has a fantastic ending, one where, literally, everyone is in a worse place than when the film started. But they are finally a family and that moment is so perfect. What’ll happen when they get home? I don’t know. And will Oliver and Anna part ways? Maybe? No? It doesn’t matter because it’s now that matters. I want to live life like that but it’s hard work. Just make now perfect. Make now happy.
And in the words of Arthur: