More crowd-pleasing than truly heart-stirring, but immensely likable all the same, Mike Mills’ “Beginners” features the story of Mills’ long-closeted father, who came out as a gay man at age 75 and lived the remainder of his life with honesty and vibrancy, terminal cancer notwithstanding.
Credit that winning premise and Mills’ bright execution for the success of this warm, entertaining dramedy.
At once a family melodrama, a romantic comedy, a quirky indie and a septuagenarian coming-of-ager, the film looks at love, loss, opening up and feeling alive via two emotionally inseparable love stories set several years apart.
The connective character (and Mills’ stand-in) is Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a grieving Los Angeles graphic artist. We meet Oliver in 2003, when he is sorting through the belongings of his recently departed father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), and looking back.
“I’m gay,” Hal tells Oliver, in flashback, after the death of Oliver’s mother, Georgia (Mary Page Keller). Next, 75-year-old Hal is enjoying an ebulliently gay existence complete with new friends, nightclubbing adventures and a young lover, Andy (Goran Visnjic).
Cancer cuts things short, but Hal remains joyful. In these final years, Oliver gets to know his father and begins to understand how the secrecy and unhappiness that characterized his parents’ 1950s-style marriage — Hal hid his homosexuality, Georgia buried her Jewish heritage — have impaired his own ability to love.
The romantic element kicks in when Oliver and Anna (Melanie Laurent), a French actress, meet-cute at a party. Inspired by his father, Oliver experiences, with Anna, love’s wonders.
The Oliver-Anna plotline is weaker. McGregor and Laurent share sparks, but their characters’ indie-style romance goes nowhere extraordinary.
Also hurting the story is a reluctance to seriously explore potentially compelling darker ingredients. A theme of sadness seems to shift to something lighthearted when things start getting downbeat.
But at the same time, Mills isn’t shallow, and his film is multidimensional, sincere and funny as it delivers everything from history-filled photo montages to a daffy roller-skating date to a surprisingly textured friendship between man and dog.
Mills depicts life’s sunny side delightfully. The transformation of Hal — who exudes a childlike thrill as he experiences, among other revelations, nightclub house music for the first time — is a kick.
Plummer is a knockout, and the movie shapes up as one of those rare fact-based dramas that feel truthful.
Deserving last-word mention is the above-cited canine, whose thoughts Mills presents in subtitles. “You were bred to be cute,” Oliver tells the Jack Russell terrier, who affirms this sentiment throughout.
Starring Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Melanie Laurent, Goran Visnjic
Written and directed by Mike Mills
Running time 1 hour 44 minutes