Beginners is a deeply personal project based on actual events in the life of its writer/director, Mike Mills.
It never quite achieves the emotional impact it aims for, but at least half of it is a great film.
Naturally, that half is the one most rooted in reality, although it sounds like a Hollywood contrivance. An aging widower, Hal Fields (Christopher Plummer), announces his homosexuality to his befuddled grown son, Oliver (Ewan McGregor). Even after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis, Hal is determined to enjoy his new self as much as possible, even taking up with a much younger man (an endearingly eccentric Goran Visnjic).
Hal and Oliver grow closer as Oliver begins to understand the rote coldness of his parents’ long marriage. That brings us to the movie’s other half, set just after Hal’s death, when an aimless, depressed Oliver falls in love with the equally commitment-phobic Anna (Melanie Laurent of Inglourious Basterds). This tentative romance is intercut with Oliver’s recollections of both his father’s coming out and the troubled years preceding it.
This is only Mills’ second feature (after 2005’s Thumbsucker), but he directs with tremendous confidence. Beginners moves in a stream-of-consciousness fashion, the way real thoughts and memories do, and Mills cleverly places everything in a larger historical context.
When Hal admits that he turned in his “gay card” when his wife turned in her “Jewish card” (something Mills’ own father said to him), he encapsulates the differences between his era and Oliver’s, and the cruelly casual ways in which people are forced to suppress their true selves.
The irony is that Oliver and Anna have suppressed their true selves as well, without needing societal pressure. They’re too emotionally stunted to embrace the freedom the modern world offers them, and it almost takes Hal reaching out from the grave to push Oliver in the right direction.
The Oliver/Anna romance is purely fictional, and it shows. It’s too by-the-numbers — they meet cute, get close, get scared and have overly contrived misunderstandings until they finally decide what they want. McGregor and Laurent are a believable, relatable couple, but those qualities fade as they dutifully fulfill Mills’ narrative requirements.
When the film shifts back to Hal’s story, it gets a burst of energy thanks to Plummer ’s vivid performance. Scene by scene, he conveys the joy, fear and determination of a man finally living his life just as he nears the end of it. Even in the saddest moments, Plummer is such fun to watch, it’s a little disappointing when Mills cuts away from him.
The movie isn’t hurt too badly by this — it’s still exceptionally well-made — but the strange truth of Beginners is much more interesting than its fiction.
Beginners: 3 stars out of 4
Rated R Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes