The delicate blend of playful drama in “Beginners,” the second narrative feature by California-based filmmaker and graphic designer Mike Mills (“Thumbsucker”), is a small wonder to behold. Mills fashions the set-up for an overwrought, thoroughly depressing character study into an oddly charming comedy. It’s a midlife crisis gently portrayed with sympathy rather than grief.
Mills’s eternally sad-eyed protagonist, 38-year-old illustrator Oliver (Ewan McGregor) drifts through several eras in his life. In an opening segment, he describes the world in 2003, in the immediate aftermath of his father’s death, and the world in 1953, when his parents got married. With that swift montage of multigenerational sights and sounds, it quickly becomes clear that Oliver continues to live in his parents’ shadow. His father, Hal (Christopher Plummer, in an almost unbearably bittersweet performance), came out of the closet at the age of 75 — four years prior to dying from cancer, and in the immediate aftermath of his wife’s death. That unique aspect of Oliver’s family history establishes the movie’s central juxtaposition: A man searching for his purpose while his dying father finally realizes his own.
The bulk of “Beginners” oscillates between Oliver’s relationship with his father during his brief period out of the closet and the aftermath of his death. It may not yield the most advanced storytelling maneuver, but Mills uses it to reflect the manner that Oliver drifts through the timeline of his own identity crisis. The levity of the pace cushions its structural complexity. Despite his mood swings, Oliver relishes the opportunity to crack jokes, and the movie inhabits his restless mind. He engages in relaxed chatter with his father’s dog, Arthur, whose innocent and presumably imaginary responses appear on the screen in subtitles. Oliver’s voiceover provides a regular guide to his life, and Mills frequently relies on visual aids (maps, money, media) to represent the character’s thoughts.
If such cutaways served no purpose beyond Mills’s attempt at cinematic trickery, they would merely distract from an otherwise involving plot. Instead, they succeed at informing it. Oliver’s oft-distracted perspective on his situation suggests that the narration, in addition to the visuals accompanying it, exists solely for himself. Like Billy Pilgrim in “Slaughterhouse-Five,” Oliver is unstuck in time, at least in his head. Occasional flashbacks to his childhood, much of which was dominated by his cynical mother while his father presumably sought the clandestine company of men, emphasize the present day Oliver’s routine attempts to reevaluate his private life.
It turns out that the cure to his psychological illness lies in companionship. The other dominant strand of “Beginners” involves a breezy relationship that Oliver develops with the delightful Anna (“Inglourious Basterds” fighter Melanie Laurent, in her first properly English language role, impressively low key). After the two meet cute at a costume party, where Anna has laryngitis, their courtship forms before they share a single word. Accepting Oliver’s comic nature with a mysterious grin, Anna’s role introduces an amusing courtship akin to “(500) Days of Summer,” minus the shameless posturing of cuteness (which isn’t to say they don’t make a cute couple, but their behavior seems more genuine).
The core appeal of “Beginners” arises from an enjoyable survey of witty and sad moments, all held together by Oliver’s endearing nature. The movie is quite obviously a personal project for Mills, whose own father came out at the same as Hal. Mills (one of the subjects of the creative pariah documentary “Beautiful Losers”) obviously molds Oliver on himself. An affable outsider, even Oliver’s graffiti (he tags buildings with statements of “historical consciousness”) has an innocuousness to it. Mills’s style is distinctly plucky, but never indulgent. It’s rare that a whiny character can get away with being likable, which is why “Beginners” stays true to the title and feels like something entirely new.
criticWIRE grade: A-
This review was originally published during indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival. “Beginners” hits theaters this Friday, June 3.