Beginners, a Hidden Indie Gem Lost Among Superhero Blockbusters and Raunchy Comedies

In a summer movie season dominated by superhero flicks and R-rated comedies, a little independent film called “Beginners” is managing to generate quite a buzz after favorable early reviews. Director Mike Mills’ poignant, authentic, and ultimately life affirming film will come as a welcome respite for any moviegoer who has reached their limit of costumed crusaders and shock value comedy.

It’s both incredibly easy and incredibly difficult to explain what “Beginners” is about. On a thematic level, it’s easy. The story is about love, living life to its fullest, and the bonds of family. When it comes to the plot of the film, a quick synopsis is a bit more elusive. Suffice it to say that the story involves a middle aged man coming to terms with the abrupt delivery of two facts about his father: that he is dying, and that he has been a closeted homosexual his entire life. You can also throw in an incredibly clever take on a dog that “speaks” through subtitles. But to betray any more about the plot or the narrative structure would do a disservice to anyone interested in seeing the film. Nonetheless, it’s still possible to sing the praises of this stirring and captivating story.

One of the reasons why the film stands out so starkly against the backdrop of summer popcorn flicks is its authenticity. The story no doubt feels so genuine because it was inspired by the real life experiences of Mike Mills. Mills’ own father opted to come out of the closet at age 75 after the death of his wife, just as Christopher Plummer’s character does in “Beginners.” Last fall, Mills described the experience to IndieWire.com, remarking that “He went from being one of the most stuck, emotionally dampened people I knew. A very sweet, kind guy but kind of muted. He went from being that, to totally revived. He became totally emotionally open and vivid.” That remarkable latter life transformation became the basis of the film’s story.

At the same time, the film’s protagonist, played adroitly by Ewan McGregor, is falling for a whimsical young French actress named Anna (you may recognize Melanie Laurent from last year’s “Inglourious Bastards”). McGregor’s Oliver has never been very good at relationships in the past. How will the emotional lessons learned from his father’s experience transform his capacity to form a relationship with Anna?

Kudos should be extended to Bill Cody from the Rope of Silicon, who cleverly asked Mills to state what “Beginners” is about in a single sentence. “It’s about people trying to figure out how to love one another.” I am at a loss to find another movie that could be described in such a way, which no doubt explains why “Beginners” seems so incredibly original. Surely that’s a topic worth reflecting on as we pause between super soldiers and otherworldly norse Gods this summer.

“Beginners” begins a limited release on Friday, June 3.