Writer and director Mike Mills burst onto the indie film scene in 2005 with “Thumbsucker,” a smart coming-of-age story, the fingerprints of which can be found on many similar films in theaters right now. His next major release, “Beginners,” is a massive step up on every level and is one of the best films of the year thus far.
Based on real events from Mills’ life, “Beginners” spins two parallel stories. After Oliver’s (Ewan McGregor) mother dies, his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) comes out of the closet and chooses to live the last years of his life as a politically, socially and romantically active gay man, ignoring medical diagnoses that tell him his days are numbered. A few years later, after Hal’s death, Oliver meets the radiant Anna, played perfectly by Melanie Laurent (“Inglourious Basterds”).
While these are two fairly basic story lines of self-discovery and falling in love, Mills makes them both absolutely enthralling, with his seamless shifts between Hal and Anna’s story lines and also with some offbeat artistic flourishes that work more often than not. Brief segments where Oliver compares the year he lives in with the ones his parents did are stark, captivating stretches of poetry and some of the film’s most memorable moments. Less successful are a color-by-color breakdown of the gay pride flag and an extended gag where Oliver’s dog (inherited from Hal) speaks to him via subtitles.
One thing Mills gets absolutely right is the casting. McGregor, ostensibly playing Mills, isn’t given too much personality here but makes a solid character out of a churning pool of melancholy. Laurent, in her first major English-speaking role, dares you not to fall in love with her as Anna, a charming dream girl played with graceful poise. However, Plummer rips the film out from under both of his co-stars. His Hal is so vibrant, so alive, that watching the life drain out of him is nothing short of devastating. It’s one of the great performances of Plummer’s career and of 2011, making it one of the main reasons “Beginners” works as well as it does.
Mills has made an intimate, affecting little film here. More than anything, it’s about the joys of really and truly connecting with someone, a universal theme that Mills milks for all its worth, coaxing effortless beauty out of moments as run-of-the-mill as a meet-cute at a Halloween party or a group of friends visiting Hal in the hospital. While the Anna story line threatens to tip into melodrama in its final moments, Mills manages to keep it steady through a few clever subversions of romantic comedy tropes.
"Beginners” isn’t a particularly ambitious film. It’s very much about telling Mills’ personal story and hoping audiences enjoy it. However, because it’s so starkly personal, the film works, both as a stirring look at themes that have been covered time and time again and as a peek into Mills’ psyche. “Beginners” is a film that can’t be missed, be it for the smart, funny script from Mills or Plummer’s astonishing performance.
Printed on 06/23/2011 as: Film’s stellar casting, plot makes enthralling drama