Mike Mills’ engrossing and uplifting film, Beginners, seeks to document his own experiences with his parents, in a fictionalized way. It is such a specific, personal journey, full of details that you know came straight from Mills’ life, yet Beginners feels relatable to anyone who has turned around a strained relationship with a parent or anyone who has embarked on a romantic relationship not knowing if they have what it takes to make it work. The film has whimsical elements, like the way Arthur the Jack Russell Terrier has ongoing subtitles to reveal his feelings, but overall, the film is a leisurely-paced love story paired with a late-in-life coming out tale.
Oliver, played by Ewan McGregor, is packing up his late father Hal’s (Christopher Plummer) belongings as the film begins, and in flashback, you are introduced to the man who, after being widowed at age 75, decides to come out of the closet. The film is both a tribute to a man who, being a product of the 50’s, denied his true sexual orientation his whole life, only to embrace it in the end, and an intelligent examination of the effect parents have on their children and the way they interact with others. Oliver is closed off emotionally, and doesn’t stick with relationships very long. He watched his mother Georgia (Mary Page Keller), who made Oliver her confidant and surrogate best friend, suffer from the loneliness of being in a marriage with a closeted gay man. At the same time, Hal was a distant and absentee father.
Oliver meets French actress Anna (Mélanie Laurent from Inglourious Basterds) at a costume party where she is playing mute to save her voice. Their courtship is sweet and tentative, since both come with a lot of baggage. Hal, on the other hand, embraces every aspect of gay life, trying out bars where youth rules supreme and then settling in with a great group of “Prime Timers” who host movie nights and dinners out in West Hollywood. He even gets a wild and crazy boyfriend named Andy (ER’s Goran Visnjic, in a horrible bowl cut). But Hal’s days are numbered, it turns out, and Oliver becomes much closer with his father than he ever was growing up. Mills keeps the tone even and mostly light-hearted, but the reality of losing a parent is explored in a way everyone can relate to; don’t be afraid if tears flow... it’s good for you.
Beginners has many moments of emotional truth, and the performances could not be better. Plummer is sure to be nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and he does a great service to a group in the gay community that tends to be ignored, namely older gay men. McGregor has a much quieter role to play, but he does it with his usual intelligence and intensity. Laurent is quirky and beautiful and Cosmo the dog makes the perfect cinematic companion for Oliver. If you can handle a summer movie that isn’t full of shape-shifting robots or Caribbean pirates, Beginners is a nice, quiet beginning to the season.
Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.