Beginners is a film defined by grace, both narratively and aesthetically: while the relationships of the central characters revolve around their ability to love and forgive each other, the movie itself comes together with quiet certitude and beauty, gently sliding through the life of its hero. Writer-director Mike Mills’ second feature is all about a man, played by Ewan McGregor, who is dealing with the death of his father and the variety of emotional fallout from the end-of-life revelations that changed their relationship, but the film doesn’t once feel mawkish or cheap. It would be the easiest trap in the world to fall into here, too: the man’s father came out of the closet a few years before he died, meaning the film could have morphed from a human drama into a series of sermonettes on tolerance, openness, filial duty, etc., without anyone stopping it. But Mills has far more skill and sense than that. Beginners isn’t just about sexual identity or paternal heartbreak, but about the generational changes that have defined how men and women have dealt with the social fact of being gay over the course of the mid-to-late 20th century. As McGregor’s character says of his own relationship, “Our good fortune allowed us to feel a sadness our parents never had time for.” Mills’ comedy-drama is a hilarious, poignant, expertly observed story about the way love changes over time and the high but necessary cost of being true to your heart.
The film’s success stems from the way Mills’ screenplay (aided by Olivier Bugge Coutte’s skillful editing) plainly but powerfully weaves together disparate timelines to create an emotional whole. The basic story follows Oliver (McGregor), a graphic artist living in Los Angeles, as he deals with the recent death of his father and tries to move forward by taking tentative steps into a relationship with Anna (Melanie Laurent), an actress he meets at a friend’s party. But Mills eschews a simple first-this-then-this set-up, and he also ditches the idea of moving the plotlines in rough parallel (charting Oliver and Anna’s lives while occasionally cutting to flashbacks that moved forward to the point of Oliver’s father’s death). Rather, the story unfolds with erratic beauty as scenes from Oliver’s memory bubble up at random, spurred by the things he sees around him. His father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), was a museum director who came out in his 70s, after the death of Oliver’s mother (played as a younger woman by Mary Page Keller). Mills is wise enough to know that mourning isn’t so much a process as it is an experience, and Oliver’s life without his father is peppered with out-of-sequence memories and moments from his time with the old man. Mills’ film delicately captures the abrupt nature of memory and the way life seems to fold in on itself in these times of trial. The transitions are never anything as forced or obvious as a traditional flashback; similarly, though it would be technically accurate to refer to the move from one era to the next as a cut, the word feels far too harsh for the naturalistic and honeyed way with which Mills moves around Oliver’s life, rummaging through his heart like a sock drawer. The film replicates the experience of reliving powerful memories without calling attention to it as such.
The film also finds a wonderful balance between humor and heartache. There’s plenty for Oliver to be sad about, and indeed, many of the film’s most moving moments deal with a raw, almost beautiful level of pain, but Mills takes care to make Oliver a funny, smart man with a dry but definite sense of humor. For instance, he takes possession of his father’s Jack Russell terrier and begins imagining bizarre dialogue for him that appears as subtitles (as when the dog encourages Oliver to make a move on Anna lest “darkness swallow us”). He’s quiet but not mopey; funny but never desperate. He’s written as a real man, and McGregor brings him to life with some of the best acting of his career. He’s fully rounded, to use a horrible cliché that’s still the best way to communicate to someone who hasn’t seen a film that its protagonist moves and breathes and loves and hurts like we do.
As the film progresses, Oliver and Anna’s relationship is tested by the usual types of baggage — the point here isn’t to make their story unique, but to let Oliver take emotional risks again — but the soul of the story stays with the scenes involving Oliver and Hal. Oliver narrates the film and spends many of these scenes talking about how he felt about his father and their relationship, often admitting that he might be misremembering something even though he feels it to be true. Hal’s honesty comes late in the game for Oliver, but it brings them closer together by redefining what they mean to each other. There’s the late-night phone call when Hal comes home from a gay club and wants Oliver to explain house music; there’s the moment when Hal’s illness refuses to subside and Oliver sets him up in a hospital bed in the old man’s living room. Mills shuffles between moments of joy and sorrow with a skill that belies the effort behind it all.
Plummer gives a sweet performance, too, able to convey the nuance in the emotions as his character embraces the happiness of being out and deals with the inevitable regret at living for so long as something he wasn’t. Laurent is enjoyable, too: winning and quirky, but playing a woman similarly wounded by her own father. Yet this is McGregor’s show all the way, and he carries it expertly. He’s always been a fine and enjoyable actor, but this is perhaps the first time he’s ever gotten inside the skin of a character and given him such detailed life. It never once feels as if he’s putting on a performance; rather, by the end, it feels as if Oliver’s as real as Mills probably feels him to be. McGregor is the hub holding the wheel together, and he never falters in the role. Beginners isn’t about winning every battle, but deciding when to fight. Watching Oliver learn to survive without his father, we see him learn to live.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.