Beginners, the latest film from writer-director Mike Mills (Thumbsucker), is the story of a grieving son and frustrated lover, and the memories of his father who enjoyed liberation only at the very end of his life. But more than that, it is the story of how it is never too late to chase after that ever-elusive dream called happiness.
Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is a sad and lonely person whose personal relationships reflect his deep melancholy about life. As Oliver explains in his narration, he’s the type of person who thinks all relationships will never turn out and then makes sure that they don’t.
Six months after Oliver’s mother dies, his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) announces he’s gay — and that he has been his entire life. This comes as a shock to Oliver, but an even greater shock is that Hal has terminal cancer. And, as the film tells us in its opening minutes, Hal succumbs to the cancer all too quickly.
A unique blend of comedy and drama, Beginners follows Oliver in the aftermath of his father’s death, trying to add some happiness to his life in the midst of his lonely anguish. In an attempt to be social, he attends a friend’s costume party dressed as Freud and as he tries to humourously psychoanalyze various guests, he meets Anna (Inglourious Basterds’ Melanie Laurent). The two become involved and the central romance is born.
The scenes between Oliver and Anna are introspective and melancholic; they focus more on how hard it is to commit oneself to a relationship after so many previous ones have failed than on the joys of love. This isn’t a story of first love. But there are moments of wit and true romance amidst all the loneliness. Luckily, McGregor is in top form and Laurent again proves why she’s one of the brightest up-and-coming foreign actresses.
While following Oliver in his blossoming relationship with Anna, Beginners also ponders Oliver’s memories of his father’s last years — and this is where the film gets most interesting.
Christopher Plummer, arguably the greatest Canadian actor, forgoes his trademark gravitas for a lighter touch. He’s playful and full of energy in depicting Hal’s newfound freedom as an elderly gay man. Watching him explore the gay bar scene and enthusiastically put together gay pride activism parties is a blast. As well, the way the film deals with his relationship with his younger boyfriend is quite charming. Plummer steals the show (as is to be expected) and the unconventionality of his role makes an Oscar nomination for him seem a real possibility.
But there aren’t enough scenes with Plummer. Instead of exploring Hal’s fascinating story, Mills focuses on despondent Oliver, using Hal only when it suits that purpose.
Unfortunately, this makes all the scenes with Oliver unsatisfying compared to those with Hal. It’s the inherent vice of the film that the father’s story is more interesting than the son’s. However, the reason for this is quite clear.
Beginners is largely autobiographical, based on Mills’s own experiences with his father coming out of the closest prior to his death from cancer. This makes the film authentic, but it also causes it to seem unfocused. For instance, a whole subplot involving memories of Oliver’s mother are underdeveloped and would have given much greater insight into how Oliver grew into the person he is had they been more focused on.
Luckily, while many films dealing with similar subject matter feel contrived, sentimental and overly quirky (think most American indies of previous years), Beginners is almost overwhelmingly earnest. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its fair share of quirk — the dog Arthur, who speaks in subtitles, is a bit much — but at least it’s honest.
Beginners will not stun you and it seems a little too melancholic for a film that preaches such an optimistic message — that it’s never too late for happiness — but the honesty of its storytelling and its performances will win you over. Ewan McGregor and Melanie Laurent both put in solid work and there’s plenty of humour to help you through all the grieving. But ultimately, it’s the promise of Christopher Plummer in an ascot that makes the whole process worthwhile.
Beginners is currently playing at the Roxy Theatre.
image: Focus Features