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Film: Beginners
Director: Mike Mills
Performers: Ewan McGregor, Melanie Laurent, Christopher Plummer, Cosmo (as Arthur the dog)
Breed featured: Jack Russell Terrier
Production information: Focus Features, 2010 (USA)

Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is trying to come to terms with the meaning of relationships as filtered through vivid recollections of his recently-deceased father Hal (Christopher Plummer), his emerging romance with a French actress named Anna (Mélanie Laurent), and his father’s dog Arthur (played by Cosmo, a rescued Jack Russell Terrier). After his mother’s death, Oliver’s 73-year-old father came out as gay, and was finally able to live out his last years true to himself. But having grown up in an emotionally tepid, though creative household, Oliver is somewhat adrift when it comes to his own love life.

It’s a little hard to “sell” a movie like this without giving the wrong impression. It’s romantic, but not a romance. It’s quirky, but also suffused with a kind of quiet wisdom that keeps it from becoming obnoxious or cloyingly hip. It is a nice film about personhood and the process of living as a full and social human being. And to that end, Arthur plays an integral role in bringing out the complexities of those that surround him. The terrier has a bit of separation anxiety, so he spends a lot of time in human company. While working through their shared trauma of loss, Oliver eventually understands how to relate to his father’s dog by talking to him.

In one of the best monologues, Oliver says to Arthur: “I’m a human. I’m not a dog. And you’re a Jack Russell. That’s a breed. Your personality was created by this guy, John Russell, who was a hunting enthusiast in the 1800s. And he bred your ancestors for their stamina and courage for the hunt. You think you’re you when you wanna chase the foxes, but other people planted that in you years ago. And now, somewhat arbitrarily, you’re considered very cute by us humans. And we keep breeding you not to chase foxes, but to be cute. And we put you in television shows and movies, and you’re chasing tennis balls, because they’re as close to a fox as you’re gonna get.”

And surprise, the dog even talks back — but without moving lips, through the use of subtitles, which I thought was lovely. Some of what Arthur says made it evident to me that Mike Mills the writer and director not only has a dog of his own, but actually enjoys their company and probably knows them pretty well (indeed, he has a border collie named Zoe). Thus, he understood how important it was for Cosmo to be comfortable on the set. Not only did he have the actors constantly feeding him treats, they also played and cuddled and walked together — in short, all the ritualistic daily motions that all dog owners go through to bond with their pet.

Frankly, it’s a pleasure to see a dog that evidently enjoys their part in the story.

The Focus Features website offers some preview clips and a sweet production short about Cosmo the dog (including a look at the dog that Ewan McGregor adopted because of working with him). While you’re there, you can also check out a neat slideshow on the “strange and beautiful […] way human beings and dogs try to coordinate their confusing lives around each other.”

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The House of Two Bows keeps a running index of movies blurbed on the site, annotated by breed. If you’re interested in writing a guest blog for a dog film, contact for details.

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