Thursday, June 9, 2011


It's never too late to find yourself, or surprise yourself may be the ultimate message in Mike Mills' new film Beginners, an almost eternally adorable comedy-drama about a man and his recently out-of-the-closet father.  And what the film may lack in subtlety-- at times it certainly feels like it belongs in the ever-expanding box-set of quirky, film festival-endorsed family dramedies that make for big acquisition deals at Park City and Toronto-- it more than makes up for in generosity of spirit.  What may have begun as cinematic therapy (Mills based on the film on his real-life experiences with his father) has such a firm, but sensitive emotional pulse, that even when Mills embraces overly precious writer-director flourishes (which play as both self aware and self conscious), it never takes away from the heart of the his bewitching film, nor take away from the quiet gracefulness of its performers.  This flourishes include: an adorable Jack Russell terrier (who speaks no less; subtitles are given), a pixie-ish French girl (who doesn't speak; she has laryngitis), countless (and slightly redundant) visual gags, and the ever-enduring staple of independent film: the clever voice-over work, the film even turns into Exit Through the Gift Shop for a quick break from the proceedings..  However, to Beginners credit, none of these diversions take away from the heart and soul of the work, or distract in the way that is has is oh-so-many cleverer-than-thou indie quirk-fests.

What's mostly appreciated is the fine work of Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer as father and son.  McGregor plays Oliver, a tentative graphic artist overcoming the loss of his father to terminal cancer (not a spoiler), this just a few years after discovering that his father, Hal was gay...he came out of closet at the ripe age of 75, shortly after the death of his wife.  What is clearest of all is that both Oliver and Hal are newbies, both discovering and surprising themselves, shortly after coming out Hal takes up with a much younger lover named Andy (Goran Visnjic); shortly after his father's death Oliver takes up with a beguiling French actress (Melanie Laurent, Inglourious Basterds), and the back-and-forth narrative structure informs Oliver's present, but artfully presents a rich relationship between father and son, one that may have truly peaked after death itself.  With such ripe reflection, Mills displays something raw and personal, but also truly affecting.

What's quietly revelatory about the character of Hal, not just in how Plummer plays him, but in how he's presented is that here's a senior gay character in a movie that not only granted permission to exhibit some form of sexuality, but that none of it used for comic fodder.  There's a aching and liberated joy in Plummer's performance, perhaps akin to a kid in a candy store, that for the first time, this man is who he wanted to be in the first place.  In the history of cinema, gay characters have always either been comic relief or sources of tragedy (at it's most offensive, they've been nearly sociopathic), and while political correctness has changed a bit in the past decades, replacing the tragic with unearned nobility (the comic relief has always stayed in fashion), what's refreshing and altogether graceful about Beginners is that Hal is allowed to date a younger man, and it's treated as no big deal, and that while Hal may make various nods at caricature (as when watching The Life and Times of Harvey Milk with his senior gay pals, or reveling in gay pride memorabilia, or putting out a gay personal ad), he never becomes one.  Nor is he left off the hook for perhaps not being the greatest father to Oliver as a child.  The film leapfrogs from the past to present to near present, informing us and Oliver of all the baggage on the outset of his new relationship with the girl he obviously really likes.  The role likely would have been unbearable (no offense to the director, who it's clearly modeled on) if not for the charismatic sparkle of Ewan McGregor, who in one of his strongest performances to date, gives Oliver, a painfully shy reserved man, a deeply felt sense of longing and melancholy.  B+

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