Mike Mills’ “Beginners” is not a light, frothy concoction about comedic family relationships when a father comes out of the closet at 75. Instead it is a very real and human examination of connections, both with parents and lovers, as well as the real and perceived memories of one’s past. Starring Christopher Plummer, Ewan McGregor, and Melanie Laurent, “Beginners,” takes us on a journey with Oliver (McGregor) through his new relationship with Anna (Laurent) via his memories of his father, Hal (Plummer), his childhood and his newly adopted dog, Arthur.
Although not a biopic, writer/director Mills drew from moments in his own life – Mills’ father announced he was gay at age 75 after 45 years of marriage to his mother (he did so after Mills’ mother passed away). Altered by these life-changing events, Mills pays homage to the importance of finding connections and communicating with loved ones before life passes you by. He successfully achieves his storytelling goal through the fine performances of his actors through poignant, heartfelt scenes and from authentic snippets of humor.
In parallel stories that cut back and forth through time, we see how Oliver reacts to his father’s news that he’s gay in a humorous memory play regarding what his father was wearing as he announces this news. Naturally this revelation has repercussions on Oliver’s current relationship with his father as well as his memories of growing-up with his mother, as his father, an art museum director, was mostly absent from their lives.
Reconstructing his past as well as his present, Oliver forges a new relationship with his father, Hal, now a very different man than the one he grew up with. Hal enthusiastically embraces and yearns for knowledge about his new lifestyle, from a club’s house music, to intimate relationships, from gay activist groups to facing mortality himself. Hal even gets a new young boyfriend, Andy, (Goran Visnjic), a physical therapist completely different from Hal. Experiencing Hal’s journey, Oliver begins to adjust his views as well, especially in terms of his relationships with women.
Meeting a visiting French actress named Anna at a costume party, the two hit it off. Anna has laryngitis and can only pantomime and write notes; Oliver carries Hal’s dog, Arthur, since Arthur pitifully cries when left alone. Both have relationship scars and are somewhat reluctant in moving forward. As an actress you move a lot, so it’s easy to leave people, Anna mentions to Oliver. Oliver responds that you can live in the same place and still leave people.
Mills, himself a graphic artist, wonderfully illustrates Oliver and Anna’s thought processes through Oliver’s graphic art for T-Shirts and album covers, his graffiti statements, old or historic photographs that reflect Anna and Oliver’s family history, and even humorous, heartfelt dialogs with the Jack Russell terrier, Arthur, which Mills cleverly subtitles. The deliberate pacing of the film allows his characters time to breathe and observe life around them. Conflicts play out, at times with just a look. As the ebb and flow of life continues with connections made or relationships changing, Mills brilliantly ends his movie with a simple title card, “Beginners” to help remind us that we’re all “beginners” in life.
“Beginners” is 104 minutes and Rated R.