Played with just enough whimsy to be funny and just enough reality to be bittersweet, Mike Mills' Beginners is a film with a light touch dealing with heavy matters.
Ewan McGregor plays Oliver, an illustrator first seen clearing out his late father's house and taking custody of his winsome dog, Arthur. The story then proceeds on two tracks, moving between past and present.
The past is actually a double track as well: Oliver tells the story about how his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), announced to Oliver that he was, in fact, gay, shortly after being widowed at 75. And that he was about to start living openly as a gay man.
So Oliver looks back on the years his father had being happily gay -- and then at his own childhood, living with a mother who treated him as an adult partner in crime, without ever letting on that she knew her husband was homosexual.
In the present, Oliver is a lovelorn individual, who has never had a relationship that lasted and who is distrustful of the feelings he has when he meets a lovely young woman with laryngitis, Anna (Melanie Laurent), at a costume party, where he is dressed as Sigmund Freud and she is dressed as a young man.
They start slowly and gain speed -- but Oliver is still afraid of commitment, mostly for fear that he will wind up in the kind of loveless relationship he perceived between his parents. He can't let go and allow himself to fall for someone, because Oliver is definitely a look-before-you-leap kind of guy.
The blossoming of the Oliver-Anna relationship is sweet, but it's less compelling than the way Hal blooms as a man discovering a side of life he's never known -- or never allowed himself to know. It's not just the sex and romance (which he develops with a younger man played by Goran Visnjic). It's his total embrace of life in a way he's never felt -- because he is finally allowed to be himself. It's not sexual liberation -- it's human liberation, the sense of being freed from a life spent pretending to be someone other than who you are.
It's a beautiful and relaxed performance by Christopher Plummer, at once brave and sunny, wise yet childlike in his sense of wonder and discovery at his new life. It's exactly the kind of performance that wins Oscars for actors who have reached Plummer's age with a strong body of work and a dearth of Academy Awards on their shelves.
Mills takes a beguiling visual approach, pausing in the story to show the world from Oliver's point of view. In voiceover, Oliver catalogs what different parts of the world -- everything from the president to romance to cars to the stars -- looked like at different parts of his life. Mills allows scenes from the past to flow on to the screen as Oliver remembers them, showing the kinds of connections we make in our heads when memories are triggered.
McGregor and Laurent are perfectly fine in their roles and Mills' writing is sunny and real. But you keep wishing that he'd go back to Plummer, who steals every scene that he's in.
Beginners is a treat, exactly the kind of movie I would have sent my late mother to without feeling that I was condescending to her. Let yourself go and enjoy.
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