In Beginners, director/screenwriter Mike Mills recreates a bit of personal history and winds up with a film that’s profoundly universal. Warm, heartbreaking, funny and clever without being too arty, Beginners examines the bond between a son (Ewan McGregor) who can’t sustain a relationship and his father (Christopher Plummer), who comes out as gay at 75 after his wife dies.
The premise sounds high concept, but perhaps because Mills (Thumbsucker) lived through it, he brings a deep understanding of the confusion and humor inherent in such a seismic shift, and in his hands Beginners is an irresistible exploration of love. The film is not about a straight man’s struggle to understand how his father is gay; it’s about learning that happiness is always possible if you’re brave enough to keep your heart open.
The story is gleefully non-chronological, wandering from present to past with vibrant, directorial flourishes (Mills is a graphic artist like his protagonist and inserts his pointed, often poignant sketches into the film). As Beginners opens, melancholy Oliver (McGregor) is recovering from his father’s death. Hal (Plummer) died of cancer a mere four years after his life-altering decision, and Oliver is attempting to put together a life without him, going through his father’s papers and moving Hal’s dangerously adorable dog Arthur in with him.
When I tell you that Oliver talks to Arthur and that occasionally Arthur responds in subtitles, you may be inclined to groan, but don’t. Mills negotiates the relationship between Oliver and Arthur deftly, with gentle humor and the understanding that Arthur’s presence is necessary. He’s the first step Oliver takes in reconnecting to the world.
Anna (Melanie Laurent) is the second. They meet cute at a costume party — she’s got laryngitis and can only communicate through brief handwritten notes — another artifice that could have gone badly wrong but somehow doesn’tThere is no tangible reason why Oliver should struggle with their budding relationship; he lives in the new millennium, not the 1950s, and unlike Hal, he’s not constrained by decades of fear and persecution and a desperate need to live by society’s rules. And yet his heart proves just as captive as his father’s. He’s unable to forget his parents’ painfully hollow marriage and the unhappy existence of his mother (Mary Page Keller), and he wants no part of a life like hers.
And yet Oliver can’t shake memories of Hal and how joyfully he embraced his new life. Plummer, excellent throughout here, is particularly good at reflecting Hal’s thrilled sense of discovery. In one scene he describes his first night in a gay club to his reticent son, happily scribbling down “house music” when Oliver explains that peculiar thumping soundtrack in the club world. When Oliver gamely asks if he met anyone, Hal’s glee dims briefly. “Young gay men aren’t interested in old gay men,” he admits. And yet he remains undaunted, writing a breathtakingly honest personal ad and ending up with a (mostly) devoted younger boyfriend (Goran Visnjic of ER).
McGregor hasn’t been this appealing or vulnerable in ages, and in both of the film’s love stories (make that three if you want to count his devotion to Arthur), he exemplifies Mills’ message: A story doesn’t have to end when a life does. The lessons we take from those close to us are what counts.
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Melanie Laurent. Goran Visnjic.
Director/screenwriter: Mike Mills.
Producers: Miranda de Pencier, Lars Knudsen, Leslie Urdang, Jay Van Hoy, Dean Vanech.
A Focus Features release. Running time: 105 minutes. Some language, sexual content. Opens Friday July 1 in Miami-Dade: South Beach, Coral Gables Arts Cinema; in Broward: Gateway; in Palm Beach: Palace.