What do you do when your mother dies and your father comes out at age 75, only to be diagnosed with terminal cancer himself? You make a wonderful, cathartic autobiographical film about it, and Mike Mills has done just that with Beginners, his sophomore feature effort (after 2005’s charming Thumbsucker.)
Ewan McGregor plays Oliver, son of Hal (Christopher Plummer), a museum curator, and Georgia (Mary Page Keller), his spirited but frustrated wife. Their marriage has not been a happy one, and it’s had a lasting negative impact on Oliver’s own relationships. Oliver’s not a bad guy, he’s just afraid of commitment. And when Georgia dies, Hal reveals to his son that he’d been gay all along — and he’s eager to start the “second act” of his life. Oliver is surprised to see his father as a whole person for the first time, embracing his new lifestyle and even taking a younger lover (Goran Visjnic). But this happy time is short; soon, Hal faces his own terminal diagnosis.
The film is constructed with three concurrent (but never confusing) storylines. In the first, we see the relationship of the preteen Oliver (Keegan Boos) with Georgia. Her husband is perpetually absent (Oliver is frequently asking, “Where’s Pop?”) but she’s an affectionate, indulgent mother given to fits of zaniness. In the second, we see the evolution of the relationship between father and son after Georgia’s death, beginning with Hal’s confession about his sexuality and culminating with his illness. The final storyline chronicles Oliver’s relationship with a beguiling French actress named Anna (Melanie Laurent) whom he meets just months after Hal’s death — and who also has serious commitment problems.
Not that Beginners is a relentlessly depressing affair; as a matter of fact, it’s got a lot of humor. With Thumbsucker, Mills proved himself capable of handling whimsy with flair, and Beginners comes close to being too cute for its own good, but somehow never crosses that threshold. As a matter of fact, the humor does much to help ease the melancholy and make it that much more poignant simultaneously. Mills’ background as a graphic designer and music video director come in handy, too: he incorporates montages of vintage photographs and images to show how people lived when Oliver’s parents first met in the 1950s, what they looked like — even a mini-history of gay rights throughout the decades. It’s an effective device that he uses sparingly throughout the film.
McGregor is onscreen for almost the entire running time and his portrayal of Oliver is wonderful. Although he looks physically the same in all of his films (unless you count 1994’s Trainspotting), he has that actor’s gift of inhabiting his characters and adapting their personalities. As I said earlier, his Oliver seems like a really good guy, but he’s put up a defensive shield to protect himself from pain. That shield starts to disintegrate when his relationship with his father changes and they’re able to really communicate with each other for the first time in their lives.
There’s a scene in which Hal tells Oliver that Georgia had known he was gay from the beginning, but promised to “fix” him. His eyes fill with tears as he tells his son how badly he wanted that to happen. It’s a remarkable moment, and it explains a lot about Hal’s frequent absences and Georgia’s melancholy.
Laurent (also in Inglourious Basterds) is appealing as McGregor’s love interest. She, too, is carrying serious baggage, and both actors can communicate what’s going on in their minds in scenes that have no dialogue at all. Visjnic, who had a recurring role on TV’s long-running E.R., gives dimension to Andy, a mildly flamboyant and unapologetically promiscuous guy who nevertheless truly loves Hal. Keller has only a few scenes to in which to sketch Georgia’s character, and she effectively offers a portrait of a woman who subsumes her unhappy marriage by indulging her only child. There’s an amusing scene at the art museum where Hal works (he’s not there, of course) where she studies a piece of sculpture and attempts to rearrange her limbs to mimic its shape, much to her son’s bemusement. Warned by a guard to stop, she asks, “What? Aren’t we allowed to interact with the artwork?”
And there’s a wonderful performance by a Jack Russell Terrier named Cosmo. You have to see the film to understand.
But it’s the veteran Plummer who really runs off with the film, grabbing one of those rare, juicy late-career roles and really running with it. Here is a man who’s been forced to conform to society’s norms his entire life, and Plummer is a joy to watch as Hal, a man who delights in each new day with a spirit that refuses to diminish, even with a death sentence looming over his head. Much like Hal Holbrook’s terrific turn in Sean Penn’s 2007 Into the Wild, I predict an Academy Award nomination for Plummer.
Beginners is currently playing in selected cities but is scheduled to roll out to more screens. I hope it does. In a summer in which mutants, pirates, aliens and bridesmaids are are all struggling for box office domination, this quiet, poignant film is a real treasure.