Coming to terms with life and loss with gusto, ‘Beginners’ is downright charming
Coming of age: it’s not just for kids any more. At least that’s true for the characters in Mike Mills’ winsome, yet sneakily affecting comedy-drama, Beginners. On one hand, Mills explores choices (and compromises) made, roads not taken, and baggage inflicted in the course of one’s life, along with a residual legacy of sadness passed through the generations. But the film is also a wryly humorous celebration of love in all its guises, friendship, family bonds, and finding oneself, at any age.
Ewan McGregor is wonderful as protagonist Oliver Fields, a 38-year-old graphic designer in Los Angeles whose romantic relationships never work out. Granted, he’s had a lot to process in the last five years, since the death of his beloved mother.
The following year, at age 75, his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer) came out as a gay man, a lifestyle he pursued with avid esprit for the next four years, until he died of cancer. Oliver is straight, but as a result of all these departures and revelations, he has a pattern of leaving his relationships with women before they get too serious; life has taught him that marriages are unhappy and doomed to fail, and that those who love inevitably get left behind.
McGregor is the steady presence that grounds the film, as Oliver devotedly shepherds his father through his final years. A little dazed, but never intolerant, he accepts his father’s new circle of gay friends—including Andy (the engaging Goran Visnjic), Hal’s much younger lover (possibly even younger than Oliver). But the centerpiece of the film is Plummer’s Hal, a museum curator and dapper bon vivant who embraces his new identity with gusto. “I don’t want to just be theoretically gay,” he says, on the day he comes out to his son. “I want to do something about it!”
Hal is dead when the film begins, as a somber Oliver packs up his things and brings home his dog. But their offbeat, yet tender father-son dynamic plays out in flashbacks throughout the film as Oliver attempts to move on with his own life, as do flashbacks of Oliver as a boy attempting to understand why his wistful, at times deliciosly subversive mother, Georgia (the absolutely terrific Mary Page Keller), seems so unhappy, despite his parents’ genuine, if formal, affection for one another.
And all of what Oliver thinks he’s learned about love, marriage, regrets, and the way the world works comes into play—and under scrutiny—when he meets Anna (Melanie Laurent) at a party. He mentions in passing that she’s an actress, although we never see her at work. What we do find out is that she’s a free-spirited type who lives from city to city, one hotel room to the next, and harbors family demons of her own. They meet in disguise, and the moment they reveal themselves to each other is both playful and freighted with symbolism. Against their better judgment, they’re drawn to each other. (It’s embarrassing,” frets Oliver to a friend. “I’m 38 and falling for a girl again,” even though he’s “lost the instructions…”)
Filmmaker Mills (his first film was the sly Thumbsucker), has an eye for telling visual details and an ear for sardonic observations. That Oliver is a graphic artist (as Mills once was) allows the director to insert a lot of Oliver’s funny, expositional doodles to further the story (including an insert he designs for a CD by a group called The Sads that becomes an impossibly immense accordion fold-out “History of Sadness”). To understand his personal history, Oliver keeps exploring the cultural, and political history of America in the ’50s and ’60s (when his parents married, he was born, and his dad was in the closet), and the present, in stream-of-consciousness montages involving advertising images from various eras.
It’s almost too much that Mills also throws in an adorable Jack Russell terrier, who communicates with Oliver via subtitles. (“Are we married yet?” he keeps asking Oliver, re: Anna), but the scruffy mutt has so much personality, we’re won over. Besides, what pet owner doesn’t imagine his animal is observing his life and offering advice? It’s one more risky component that pays off in this beautifully acted charmer of a film.
★★★ (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>
With Ewan McGregor, Melanie Laurent, and Christopher Plummer. Written and directed by Mike Mills. A Focus Features release. Rated R. 105 minutes.
Opens July 1 at The Nick.