REVIEW: Mike Mills' Beginners Overcomes Whimsy to Get at Child-Parent Truths

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No one wants to hear about the sex lives -- or lack thereof -- of their parents. But once you reach adulthood and begin to reckon with the horrific reality that parents are people too, learning all that stuff you don't want to know is sometimes unavoidable. Mike Mills' Beginners squarely addresses the fallout that often comes with that unwanted knowledge. And while the picture sometimes groans under the 200-pound whimsy of Mills' filmmaking, it's also often touchingly direct. Beginners is all about beginnings that begin with endings -- the point, Mills seems to be saying, is that sometimes you need to say good-bye to make room for hello.

Thirty-eight-year-old Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a commercial artist living in Los Angeles, has only recently learned that his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), is gay. Not much later, he learns Hal is terminally ill. After Hal's death (which the movie's opening scene clues us in to), Oliver, who has spent his adult life going from one short-term relationship to another, meets a woman -- Mélanie Laurent's Anna -- who seems particularly attuned to his special brand of sadness. They meet at a costume party where Oliver is dressed as Sigmund Freud, accompanied by his father's criminally adorable Jack Russell terrier, Arthur, whom Oliver willingly adopted after Hal's death.

The costume is an obvious defense mechanism: It allows Oliver to socialize by getting others to talk about their troubles, even as he clings tenaciously and silently to his own. Anna has laryngitis, which means she has to communicate through use of a pad and pen. But she sees straight through the phony beard and glasses to Oliver's devastation. "How did you know?" Oliver asks, referring to her canny ability to sense that he's truly bummed out. She responds by drawing a pair of eyes -- his eyes -- on her pad.

Beginners moves backward and forward, from that particular beginning to others. Oliver recalls the moment Hal came out to him. Hal had been married to Oliver's mother (played, in flashback, by Mary Page Keller) for more than 40 years; after her death, he decided he didn't want to hide any longer. "I don't want to be just theoretically gay," Hal says, with the kind of commonsense straightforwardness that's far more moving than any emotional outpouring. "I want to do something about it."

Oliver watches -- and narrates -- as his 70-something father goes about building his new life: Hal buys a whole new wardrobe of smarter, more colorful clothes. He ties a sporty rainbow kerchief around his neck and gets involved in gay-rights advocacy. He finds a boyfriend (played by Goran Visnjic) who cares deeply for him but who can't promise monogamy. Plummer navigates Hal's newfound joys and disappointments with astonishing delicacy. He knows not to expect exclusivity from his new friend; at the same time, he seems to recognize that monogamy, generally the province of killjoy straights, does bring with it a degree of emotional security.

Plummer is gruffly wonderful here, hardly a surprise, given that he's long been a great -- and sometimes unsung -- actor. And there's brilliance in Mills' casting of him: Captain Von Trapp, gay? Never! And yet, once you think about it... The point, of course, is that our inner lives don't always accurately reflect the ones we wear on our sleeves. Finding the balance between maintaining privacy and being honest with yourself is the tricky part.

Mills -- who previously directed the 2005 Walter Kirn adaptation Thumbsucker -- mixes some inspired technique with some that's just tired. Before Hal's death, Oliver wrestles with (but is open to) the changes in his father's life. After Hal's death, Oliver can no longer hide from his own problems, and as he reflects in voiceover on the nature of memory and human emotion, Mills flashes a series of stills on the screen --

'50s-era photographs of happy families, or crying babies, or people enjoying soft drinks -- that's like a pop-art version of what Chris Marker does in La Jetée (among the greatest, most mournfully joyous movies about loss and memory ever made). Elsewhere, Mills is a little too heavy-handed. In an early scene, he uses subtitles to denote what Arthur-the-terrier is thinking. It works brilliantly the first time and less so in subsequent instances. Sometimes Mills is terrierlike himself: He gets one good idea and just can't let go.

But he's attuned to his actors, and that counts much more than any novelty filmmaking technique. Laurent is charming and likable, in an elusive way, but she doesn't have much to do here -- her character is supposedly an actress, and though we never see her working, she's been put up in a pretty fancy-looking hotel. Then again, even if the Oliver-Anna relationship is integral to the movie, it isn't the one that really captivates us. McGregor is terrific at navigating Oliver's uncertainty about his own life and also at capturing Oliver's tentative, slow-burning joy at watching his father start anew -- even, paradoxically, as he's dying. McGregor knows how to say a lot with a little: When Oliver has a sudden revelation about his father's life, the look on his face -- an expression of wonder tinged with sadness -- is the kind of thing that many of us go to the movies for, even though it's not the sort of thing that can be blurbed on a movie poster. Beginners is too obvious in places. And yet somehow, in the end, it all comes down to the soft sell.