Mike Mills treats love and loss with a disarming tenderness and a refusal of sentimentality that make Beginners, his second feature, something of an anomaly among male identity flicks. What a finely wrought, wryly funny, transcendently sad movie this is. At the center is a father/son story, its fiction based on Mills’s relationship with his own father, a gay man who, at age 75—and after the death of the woman who was, for over four decades, his wife—came out of the closet and enjoyed his sexual liberation until he was felled by lung cancer five years later.
Attuned to the way in which the death of a loved one makes memory come fully alive, Mills weaves his narrative from two temporal threads. One is the story of how Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a graphic artist whose father has recently died, begins a romance with Anna (Melanie Laurent), a French actress. The other is the story of Oliver’s father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), as Oliver remembers it. The entire film is filtered through Oliver’s consciousness, rendered in a way that affirms the basic condition of cinema—that every image is as present on the screen as every other image. There are no conventional flashbacks. When Hal and his lover (Goran Visnjic) lie on the floor side by side, holding hands, they are as vivid as Oliver and Anna are, rollerblading through the corridors of a posh Los Angeles hotel—more vivid, because the father and his boyfriend are full of surprises while the son’s romance with his wanly perky girlfriend, well, we’ve seen it before. And while Mills’s belief in movies as an instrument of resurrection is thrilling, I would be indulgent not to mention that Oliver’s relationship with Anna is unconvincing, and even more disappointing, that the frustration and anger of Oliver’s mother (Mary Page Keller)—no liberation for her—is too easily shunted aside. After all, what more can Mills do with her since neither her husband nor her son can bear to think about her at all. Indeed, the late-blooming love of Oliver for Hal, and Hal’s transformation are predicated on her death.
But one can’t have everything. Beginners is about men, and the male performances are terrific. As the film’s septuagenarian object of desire, Plummer has never been more seductive. Without sacrificing his dry wit or the coolly intelligent gaze that lets no one—his character included—off the hook, he brings to the film an emotional generosity that he has rarely allowed his characters. McGregor has the more difficult role—he’s the narrator of the entire show as well as the principal participant in the action, and he rises to the occasion with a subtly colored emotional palette that, while often muted, is never dull.
Mills is a graphic artist as well as a filmmaker and his drawings—a series titled “The History of Sadness” which a band called The Sads commissions Oliver to produce, and which they reject as being too much of a downer, even for them—are as moving as any of the human interactions in the movie. Similarly, the mini slide-shows that punctuate the narrative, adroitly condensing family and social histories, are PowerPoint presentations transformed into the stuff of poetry.