A cynic in this world would argue that as we move along in life, we can never start anew. Meaning, as the time line further develops; we will never be able craft a new career path, start a new loving relationship, or gain a new attitude. Mike Mills’ newest effort, Beginners, swiftly delivers a kick to the nuts of cynics. Based on events that happened in Mills’ life, Beginners assures us that life is comprised of moments and opportunities to make a change for the better; no matter how entrenched we are in our current life. The film’s optimistic musings stem from the sardonic existence of Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a graphic designer who has recently seen his father succumb to cancer. Whether it’s taking in his father’s dog or parading over his father’s clothes, Oliver can’t escape the death of his patriarch. Making things more complex is the fact that Oliver’s father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), came out of the closet years prior to his death. Suddenly, the happy image of Oliver’s parents dissipates and reveals itself to be a facade.
Through flashbacks, Oliver is humbled by his father’s coming out party. He comes to see that a man, who had been married for forty plus years, is ready to start anew as a gay man. Hal’s personal resurrection, one that finds him supplanting himself socially and becoming more comfortable in the skin he once rejected, invariably provides inspiration for Oliver as he stumbles upon a beautiful woman who vexes him. Said woman is Anna (Melanie Laurent), a French actress that takes comfort in the rotation of hotel rooms she resides in. On the outset, Anna’s disposition is as bright as the sun, but as she evolves into Oliver’s lover, her soul bears the same emotional scars. In a way they’re meant for each other, but their fragile family lives and penchant for distancing themselves from settling down threatens to derail a blossoming love. That is until Oliver recalls the refreshing attitude of his dying father and re-examine the broken family life that acted as a cocoon to protect his parent’s true nature.
It’s through active recall that the present plight of Oliver is put in perspective and we see how a life can be stifled for decades, only to be resuscitated in moments of truth and courage. Diving back into the past, Mills uses a few stylistic flourishes that are hit and miss. One that does work is a visual cue of coins to represent the tumor found in Hal’s body. While in the present, the use of a dependent, telepathic dog (I don’t really know how to categorize this) provides a handful of laughs and “aww” moments. Sure, the aforementioned moments can feel a bit askew, but it never makes the film feel out of reach. Perhaps the most significant thing about Beginners is that Mills’ screenplay is buoyant with a sentimentality that isn’t heavy handed. We can attribute this to the fact that Mills’ is more or less Oliver, as his father provided the inspiration for Hal. Oliver’s battle with grief and love gains more credibility when we know it was experienced by the man who envisioned it on paper.
Outside Mills wearing worthy emotions on his sleeve, he has concocted a loving relationship between the two leads that is layered and wholly enjoyable. Whether it’s a first encounter at a Halloween party that begins from a faux therapy session or the impromptu act of spray painting a billboard, the flirtatious banter and no strings attached sex between Oliver and Anna is endearing and involving. Mills’ attention to detail, both on the page and behind the camera, is exacerbated by the charming performances from McGregor and Laurent. But for as stunning as Laurent is and as adorable (don’t hate) as McGregor is, the real acting kudos belongs to Christopher Plummer. Plummer is an absolute joy to watch as he exudes a level of energy and depth that all but supports the film’s main claim. There is a balancing act he must play between grim drama and disarming humor, and he does it with an irrevocable smile and a deft hand. In all sincerity, Plummer embodies the freedom all of us would only hope to possess when our time in the twilight arrives. Undoubtedly, Beginners is a worthy tribute to Mills’ father, one that is cemented by Plummer’s involvement. Stylistically and thematically, it can be a bit scattershot as all the pieces don’t feel like they entirely fit together. But as we pull back and view the bigger picture, Beginners easily convinces us that for as long as we live, we will always have a chance to start over.