Mike Mills’ offbeat romantic comedy Beginners is an examination of family, love and fresh starts that manages to be both poignant and funny. The central conceit is handled with affection and sensitivity, and only occasionally does the script step over into art-house twee.
Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is a graphic artist who is barely coping with the recent death of his father Hal (Christopher Plummer). The twist is that his father was gay, and didn’t tell his son until the death of his wife four years previously. In the past, flashbacks show Oliver’s childhood with his lonely and frustrated mother and, more recently, his close relationship with and new-found affection for his liberated father. In the present, Oliver is taking fledgling first steps in a new relationship with the unpredictable and quirky (or should that be kooky) French actress Anna (Mélanie Laurent).
McGregor’s performance as the central protagonist is understated and subtle, yet it is Christopher Plummer who steals the show as the liberated Hal, a gay man released from the confines of a previous age’s social norms. Plummer portrays Hal’s battle with cancer with humour and a fragile mortality. Meanwhile the huge social changes that assisted Hal’s liberation are represented through slideshows, showing “what pretty looked like in the 1950s” compared to today. The passing resemblance of these to Tree of Life’s flashback sequences has been noted, but to me the sincerity of Mills’ offerings are infinitely preferable to the grandiose melodrama of Malick’s creation sequence.
Beginners is at times too slight – Oliver’s fledgling relationship with Anna seems underdeveloped, while his emotional responses to his father’s dramatic revelations about his sexuality are enormously and curiously restrained. Yet this does not prevent Mills’ semi-autobiographical work being incredibly sincere, moving and disarming.