Writer/director Mike Mills’s Beginners features a gay widower, Hal (Christopher Plummer), coming out of the closet at 75. His grown son Oliver (Ewan McGregor) stands by bemused as his father rips through a bucket list he’s been secretly adding to through 45 years of straight marriage. There’s plenty of potential for cuteness there; Beginners could be Cocoon with chaps. But that’s not enough for Mills. He throws in Hal’s adorable Jack Russell terrier Arthur. who cocks his head and “speaks” in subtitles. It’s an act of willful winsomeness, the directorial equivalent of sending a “Hang in There!” greeting card—the one with a kitten clinging to a tree branch.
But the movie is magically impervious to cynical disdain. Mills, who lived through a similar situation with his own father, has made a film about loss (no spoiler: the movie starts with Hal’s death, then flashes back), but it’s not a straightforward portrayal of Oliver’s grief. It’s also about the time that Hal lost being closeted, the time his wife (Mary Page Keller) lost trying to change him and the misery of saying goodbye to your own life before you’re ready.
Hal has five or so years of unadulterated joy as an out gay man, some of them spent with a handsome, much younger, but idiotic lover (ER’s Goran Visnjic, sporting the worst cinematic hairdo on a beautiful man since Javier Bardem’s in No Country for Old Men). Then Hal loses his battle with cancer and Oliver is left to all the tasks of adult orphans, from dumping prescription medication to sorting private papers no longer deemed off limits. The sequence is under five minutes—just a sketch of the aftermath of loss—but it’s remarkable in its accuracy.
Mills splits his story between multiple time frames. In the most compelling, Oliver enters something of an identity crisis as he watches his father embracing his new life and then facing death. There are flashbacks to his childhood, when Oliver observed but never quite understood the cloud of bitterness that hung over his tart, funny mother. And in the film’s present day, 2003, Oliver stumbles through the healing process, accompanied by Arthur, whose mute bafflement at the absence of his beloved master serves as heartbreaking reminder of the mysteries of death. The dog embodies Oliver’s stunned sadness; he’s an echo for his pain.
Everything the dog “says” is exactly what his new master imagines him to be thinking. “While I understand up to 150 words, I don’t talk,” the dog explains. In anthropomorphizing of Arthur, Oliver turns him into a dignified, kind and witty person: Hal in short. Arthur weighs in with advice on Oliver’s new relationship with Anna (the gorgeous Mélanie Laurent from Inglourious Basterds), a sexy French actress with her own father and commitment issues. She’s the dream girl for a 38 year-old hipster who wants to paint a perfect life for himself but hasn’t yet picked up a brush in earnest.
Oliver is a graphic artist, and Mills’ approach to the narrative gets inside Oliver’s visually oriented mind. There are slideshows of past and present, all narrated by Oliver (a picture of George Bush pops up to illustrate how life looks in 2003; then up comes Dwight Eisenhower in 1955, the year Oliver’s parents entered into a marriage that shouldn’t have been) as well as tableaux vivants of, for example, Hal with his gay chorus. It’s all very playful and cute—so cute that at first I thought, “Well, this isn’t going to work.”
But Beginners gets more compelling and affecting as it goes on, and it’s hard to imagine any of it staying afloat without McGregor and Plummer, who are both divine. McGregor, who explored another side of gay life in last year’s I Love You Phillip Morris, makes gentle compassion look like the sexiest thing in the world. As for Plummer, at 81, he is as tender and warm as he’s ever been. Watch his face, shot in close-up, as he receives bad news from unseen doctors; emotion ripples so lightly across it, and so vividly. There is a beautiful wisdom in his performance. Award season pundits: it is early yet, but take note.