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Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor in "Beginners."

The parent and child connection


Audiences with a disdain for talking dogs may find their patience taxed by Arthur, a Jack Russell terrier owned by Oliver (Ewan McGregor). He doesn’t actually talk but renders his opinions via onscreen subtitles, mostly regarding his impatience with his master’s unassertive ambivalence toward his new, very cutely met girlfriend Anna (Mélanie Laurent).

Still, you may want to overlook such cute feyness, because Beginners, written and directed by Mike Mills (Thumbsucker) has its rewards. There’s a real, often bittersweet current of feeling beneath the sometimes self-consciously post-modern cleverness.

The 38-year-old Oliver’s doubt-burdened but exciting new affair with Anna is ostensibly the film’s primary narrative, but of likely greater interest to most audiences will be the frequent retrospective excerpts from the story of his recently deceased father, Hal (Christopher Plummer). Dad came out gay after the death of his wife of 44 years. After all those years, Hal tells his nonplussed son, “I don’t want to be just theoretically gay.”

Hal dives into his new life with a faith, relish, and good will that Oliver has been unable to muster in his own life. He goes to gay bars (checking with Oliver about what house music is), acquires a much younger boyfriend, assembles a new circle of friends, and gets a new wardrobe, while Oliver observes in bemusement and faint unease. He lacks his father’s commitment to life and possibility. He’s been unable to sustain a romantic relationship. “I’ve lost the instructions,” he tells us, but it’s doubtful he ever had them.

Oliver is hobbled by the memories of life with his mordantly self-dramatizing and dissatisfied—if loving—mother (Mary Page Keller, making more of a small part than might be expected) and by his father’s elusiveness when Oliver was a boy. Hal expresses his concern about his son’s inhibitions, but Oliver has his reasons.

We get all of this as the movie flips back and forth in time and between Oliver and Anna’s tentative, slightly sad romance and Hal’s new gay life, and some challenges for him. Hal’s relatively felicitous life transition doesn’t track the difficulties gay men one and two generations younger than he have had in trying to cross the same bridge, but Mills clearly isn’t really interested in sociological accuracy. Mills and Beginners aren’t just narratively unstable, they’re sometimes annoyingly vague about mundane facts—like whether Oliver really is the commercial artist he seems to be in several brief vignettes.

New York magazine’s David Edelstein has called Beginners “a nutty The Tree of Life,” referring to Terrence Malick’s densely obscure current film, but this is a considerably inflated comparison. (Nothing is really like Malick’s film.) Beginners makes a kind of sense within in its own terms. It’s really a meditation on the bonds and conflicts of family life and generational encounters masquerading as a romantic comedy. And Mills succeeds more than he had a right to hope. He’s been substantially aided by McGregor and Plummer. The actors forged an unlikely dramatic achievement in portraying these two dissimilar but loving men.

Plummer is the guy who has spent 45 years publicly signalling his distancing disdain for his participation in the sugar-coated movie version of The Sound of Music. Here, he has given a lightly sentimental, perceptively amusing, and dignified portrait of spirit and emotion.

Watch the trailer for Beginners

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