There’s a reason why “Beginners,” a melancholy new family drama starring Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer and Mélanie Laurent feels so authentic. Director Mike Mills (the “Thumbsucker” filmmaker, not the R.E.M. bassist) based elements of the story on his real life. The result is an intimate portrait of a man shaped by the influence of his parents.
In this nonlinear story we follow the broken timeline of Oliver’s (McGregor) broken life. He’s having a strange year. First his mother dies of cancer, then, just as he is coming to grips with her passing, his 75-year-old father Hal (Plummer) comes out of the closet, announcing that he’s always been gay and now that his wife is gone he’d like to explore that long buried aspect of his life. Hal’s news is followed by turns both good and bad. First he meets a wonderful man, but just as their relationship is blossoming he is diagnosed with stage four cancer. The cumulative effect of all these events sends Oliver deep inside his own head to a sad and bad place until he meets Anna (Laurent), a beautiful actress with father issues of her own.
Told in flashbacks embellished with many stylistic flourishes, the movie never allows Mill’s montages and other frills to overwhelm the story. Mills, who along with his personal connection to the story, brings a keen sense of how real people conduct themselves in times of stress, isn’t afraid to allow his characters to be introspective. A good portion of the story is internal, conveyed by McGregor’s dour expressions, Plummer’s dignity and Laurent’s vulnerability.
Even the meet cute of the McGregor and Laurent characters—her voice is shot, laryngitis, and she has to communicate with a notepad—which would normally be too quirky by half for me, works because this isn’t a fluffy rom com but a textured look at why people behave the way they do.
Mills has also drawn expert performances from his cast. Plummer looks ripe to earn another Oscar nomination for his touching take on a man who finds happiness only to have it taken away too soon and McGregor and Laurent make a compelling couple.
Topping off the tender tale is the cutest on-screen dog since Benji who provides unique insight into Oliver’s emotional maturation.
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