With his two features to date, director Mike Mills traipses along an extremely thin line between the endearingly offbeat and the insufferably twee. Thumbsucker, his debut, was at least one Polyphonic Spree score on the wrong side of that divide. But his new film, Beginners, winds up firmly on the winning side, in spite of the presence of a Jack Russell terrier with subtitled thoughts. The difference is that Beginners remains fundamentally rooted in the authentic, enormously affecting story of Mills’ father, whose late-life revelation of his sexual orientation had profound ramifications for his son’s life, too. As the title suggests, the world becomes new for both men, which is destabilizing and difficult in some respects, thrillingly unmoored in others. And Mills, who also wrote the screenplay, explores these developments through an achronological structure that feels appropriately liberated.
Doing some of his best work in years, Ewan McGregor plays Mills’ alter ego as a prickly, not altogether noble loner in his late 30s who initially doesn’t take the news of his father’s coming-out well. Played by Christopher Plummer, the father kept his sexuality a secret until his wife died, but the residue of their 40-plus years of stale marriage rubbed off on McGregor’s commitment-free lifestyle. Jumping fluidly through three timelines, Beginners shows McGregor coming to terms with his father’s exuberant embrace of his sexual identity, made all the more urgent when he contracts terminal lung cancer. In the present day, after Plummer’s death, McGregor tentatively courts an equally commitment-phobic French actress (Inglourious Basterds’ Mélanie Laurent) he meets at a Halloween party.
Through no fault of the actors, who are both excellent, the frustrated, on-again/off-again romance between McGregor and Laurent is the least compelling part of Beginners, plagued at times by Mills’ weakness for the twee—like giving Laurent laryngitis at the party, so their courtship plays like a silent movie. But the material with Plummer is so spectacular—exuberant, poignant, vastly entertaining—that it swaddles the rest of the film like a warm blanket. A reliably good character actor for decades, Plummer sells the film’s never-too-late message with his broad smile and infectious personality, but undercuts it with a subtle note of obliviousness to anything outside the pursuit of his character’s happiness. The performance threatens to overwhelm the film, if not transcend it, but Beginners folds it into a complicated study of love deferred.