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.