I went to see the charming independent film “Beginners” this week with my teenage daughter (three-quarters Episcopalian, one-quarter Jewish). We usually identify ourselves as members of an interfaith family, rather than by religious fractions. But I was interested to discover that half-Jewish and quarter-Jewish identity play a role in this film. Director Mike Mills is an interfaith child, and this unabashedly autobiographical story struck me at times as funny, at times as moving, at times as oppressive in its sadness. While being half-Jewish has become common in film and fiction, I think this was the first time I have noticed a character portrayed specifically as one-quarter Jewish.
The film’s protagonist, Oliver (played by Ewan McGregor), discovers after the death of his mother that his father (the marvelous Christopher Plummer) is gay. In flashbacks, the mother (who identifies herself as half-Jewish) informs her only child (the narrator and stand-in for the filmmaker) that he is a quarter-Jew, and that their superior ability to emote comes from their Jewish blood. And yet, the mother is cold and emotionally abusive to her son, presumably because she is twisted by decades of living in a sort of closet with a gay husband. She is also clearly ambivalent about her Jewish background. In the film, the narrator mentions that she was kicked off a swim-team in 1938 for being half-Jewish, and that she abandoned Judaism when she married her WASP husband. Mills has said that this happened to his mother in real life.
In the film, Oliver seeks redemption from repression through his passion for Anna, an equally sad and depressed young woman who is wholly Jewish, played by French (and Jewish) actress Melanie Laurent. While the scenes between Oliver and his father were touching and delightful, the relationship between Oliver and Anna seemed to meander at times.
Anyway, in a flashback, Oliver’s mother tries to impress on her son that being one-quarter Jewish is somehow important or defining. Her theory underscores the “red sock effect” described in the book Between Two Worlds: that like a red sock in a load of white laundry, even a single Jewish forbear seems to exert an outsize effect, coloring all the clothes pink.
The autobiographical films of Woody Allen have clearly influenced Mills, and reviewers have compared “Beginners” to a reverse “Annie Hall,” with Oliver as a WASP and Anna as a Jew (in lieu of the very Jewish Allen and the WASP Diane Keaton). But Oliver’s ruminations on the anti-Semitism faced by his mother, his mother’s declarations about the importance of her own half-Jewish identity, and her awkward attempts to communicate some sense of the importance of even the quarter-Jewish identity of her son, make the “Annie Hall” analogy imperfect. Everyone in this film shares some degree of repression, everyone shares some degree of neuroticism, and, as is common in our increasingly interfaith world, everyone crosses boundaries and confounds labels.