Richly detailed and obviously personal, Beginners is one of the year's more resonant films.
The "beginners" of the title are Oliver (Ewan McGregor), who in one timeline is coping with his father's death, his father's dog, and his trepidations about moving forward with his own life; and Oliver's father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), who in a parallel story decides to come out of the closet at the age of 75. Writer-director Mike Mills, who should not be confused with the R.E.M. bassist of the same name, taps into a remarkably similar set of circumstances from his own life, and is able to detail the journeys in refreshing and often heartbreaking ways.
Hal is dead when the movie opens, and Oliver is finishing the necessary cleaning while he gets to know Arthur, his father's Jack Russell terrier. The dog's thoughts—or at least what Oliver would like the dog's thoughts to be—are seen onscreen as subtitles. It's a clever little device that Mills revisits from time to time, giving a film not aiming for big laughs a simple and reliable release valve.
Oliver begins retracing his own life after the death of his father, and again, Mills has an interesting visual way to present the chronology. He establishes a date, and using relevant snapshots, compares one year with another. "This is 2003," Oliver says through voiceover. "This is what the sun looks like, and the stars. This is the president." And then, "This is what the sun looks like in 1955," and so on. The years have meaning; 2003 is when his father passed away, and 1955 is when his parents got married.
As a storytelling platform, it's a little inefficient, but as opposed to having either no setup or something more discreetly woven through the dialogue, Mills rightly believes that these slideshows serve as bookmarks for the chapters of his script.
Oliver explains that in 1955, his parents wed despite Hal being gay, and his mother, who passed away about five years before her husband, knew the whole time. But the '50s were a different, far-more-conservative time, and being different—being almost anything but a WASP—had its drawbacks. "She took off her Jewish badge, and I gave up my gay badge," Hal explained to Oliver, "and we got married."
Hal begins to explore life as a gay man all over again, and he is intoxicated by his newfound freedom. Then he gets sick, and cancer can be an unforgiving bitch, no matter how much you plead with her to stop. Through the illness, Hal and Oliver become closer than we suspect they have been in some time, maybe ever, if you believe that parents and children can only see eye to eye as adults.
Plummer, who did not just become a good actor recently, is doing some of his best work late in life. Beginning with his performance as Mike Wallace in The Insider, Plummer has strung together a series of memorable roles over the past decade or so. He recently received his first Oscar nomination for The Last Station, and this will likely be his second.
But Hal is only one of the beginners. His son appears to be piecing together more than a life without both of his parents. Oliver reveals that he's wrecked every relationship he's been in, and when he meets Anna (Mélanie Laurent from Inglourious Basterds), it's a whole new ballgame. She's a French actress, traveling in and out of Los Angeles, and when she stays in town, it's always at movie-star hotels. It's odd that she would be magnetized by a man who shows up at a costume party as Sigmund Freud, terrier in tow, but from the beginning, there is something about each of them that the other can't put into words.
There is a storytelling device Mills uses here, too, like the dog subtitles and the chronological flash cards: Anna is suffering from laryngitis when she meets Oliver, and to get to know more about him, she must write down all of her questions. Things like this have been done countless times before in movies, but when it's done the right way, it gives the audience a chance to focus on the characters without modern intruders like quick editing and a continuous stream of background music.
Whether or not Mills was banking on it, our unfamiliarity with Laurent works in his film's favor. With a more-recognizable actress, her reactions to certain environments—love scenes, breakup scenes—could be a little more predictable. Most Americans have seen Laurent once, and it goes without saying that this is nothing like Inglourious Basterds. And so there is some newness in seeing how she lives in each moment, and how she will deal with the conflict of each scene.
After a more-daring era of his career, Ewan McGregor has quietly become a solid leading man for all occasions. Although he'll never be a Brad Pitt-size movie star, McGregor regularly brings a vulnerability and humanity to his performances that give his films a little more gravity, and this one is no exception.
Although some moviegoers may think Mills' methods—the talking dog and all the rest—are a bit pretentious when added together, they help the filmmaker tell his story (and it's really his story) in his way. But they are not the emotional center of Beginners—merely the language Mills uses to surround the center. And like the rest of the film, they pay off beautifully.