Beginners

Cast:
Ewan McGregor as Oliver Fields
Christopher Plummer as Hal Fields
Mélanie Laurent as Anna
Goran Visnjic as Andy
Kai Lennox as Elliot
Mary Page Keller as Georgia
Keegan Boos as Young Oliver
China Shavers as Shauna
Melissa Tang as Liz

Directed by Mike Mills

Story:
Graphic artist Oliver Fields (Ewan McGregor) has been trying to come to terms with the fact his widower father Hal (Christopher Plummer) decided to come out of the closet at the age of 75 before being stricken by cancer. Months after his father’s death, Oliver meets the enigmatic Anna (Mélanie Laurent) at a party; they’re immediately attracted to each other but each are trying to deal with personal issues that might impede their happiness.

Analysis:
The idea of a 75-year-old widower coming out of the closet might sound like an absurd premise for a movie if you didn’t realize that aspect of Mike Mills’ follow-up to his quirky debut “Thumbsucker” actually comes from his own life. Oddly, this semi-autobiographical dramedy makes Mills’ adaptation of Walter Kirn seem conventional by comparison partially due to the film’s dual non-linear story structure that cuts between Oliver’s quest for love with Anna and his last years with his father. It’s a film that’s very aware of itself in the way it breaks the fourth wall or switches into different narrative styles with Mills’ quirky sensibilities always in full effect.

It opens with a subdued scene of Oliver cleaning up his father’s house after his passing as he reflects back on his father’s decision to really enjoy life and start dating following his wife’s death. When Oliver is dragged out to a costume party by his worried friends, he meets an odd French actress (Mélanie Laurent) and things go so well, it seems too good to be true, except that she has her own father issues. Hal’s death leaves Oliver having to care for his affection-seeking Jack Russell terrier Arthur, who communicates via philosophical subtitles as a Greek chorus to Oliver’s burgeoning romance.

Mills proves himself equally capable at making you smile and feel good with the sweetness of Oliver’s romance or his scene-stealing dog, then move you with some of the most honest raw emotions on display. In exploring this fractured soul, Mills has written one of the most original and poignant screenplays we’re likely to see this year. It’s not a complicated film by any means, partially because so much of its attention is focused on a stripped-down cast of three characters. Once you know the general premise, there aren’t too many surprising story developments especially in the flashbacks to Hal, since we already know the outcome.

Ewan McGregor has really grown into his own skin as an actor, and he brings something special to his scenes both with Plummer and Laurent. It’s hard to put into words why he’s so perfect for the role other than the way he approaches the character with a subtlety that doesn’t require a lot of words to really understand everything he’s feeling. By now, it’s not even remotely surprising when Christopher Plummer pulls out a performance as rounded as he does with Hal, Oliver’s complicated father, and his view on life after coming out is just a joy to experience, because it’s so inspirational. More surprising is an almost unrecognizable Goran Visnjic as Andy, the emotionally immature guy Hal starts dating. Anyone who fell in love with Mélanie Laurent as the tough cinema manager looking for vengeance in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” will fall even further seeing her in this sort of romantic role. Another standout is Mary Page Keller as Oliver’s eccentric mother Georgia who we see in flashbacks to his childhood, which give us more of an idea of why he is the way he is.

The results are an incredibly creative film that allows Mills to explore all of his artistic sides to create a film that has similar qualities as Michel Gondry’s “The Science of Sleep,” one of that auteur’s more personal films. At times, Mills’ creativity veers into territory that verges on pretentiousness, but that’s quickly tempered with scenes with such a strong emotional aspect, he’s forgiven for being an artiste. It’s also fun to see how he incorporates his own background as a graphic artist into Oliver, whose mood starts to affect his work.

Considering his music background, one might expect Mils to take the path of least resistance and incorporate all sorts of hipster alt-rock into the mix, but instead, he takes a far more unconventional route going with pre-’60s music or simple piano music, which also helps to give the movie its own identity.

The Bottom Line:
Mills delivers another film full of poise and poignancy that’s emotionally-devastating, especially if you’ve ever lost a parent or loved one to cancer yourself, but it’s also an enjoyable experience since he’s clearly a filmmaker who has found his own unique way of exploring familiar territory.

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