Delicate business is being transacted in this touchingly personal and altogether extraordinary film from writer-director Mike Mills. As Oliver, a conceptional artist, Ewan McGregor is a surrogate for Mills. The cancer-related death of his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), has persuaded Oliver to examine his own emotional core. Only five years earlier, at 75, Hal had come out as a gay man.
What did this say about Hal’s marriage to Oliver’s mother (Mary Page Keller) and to his workaholic father’s frustratingly distant relationship to him? Oliver doesn’t judge his father. He simply looks back at Hal’s late-blooming openness, especially at the passion and compassion that blend in Hal’s love affair with the much younger Andy (Goran Visnjic), and wonders why he’s never been able to find that in himself. Mills turns Beginners into something more than a movie. It’s a collage of collected memories of his father coupled with an art project he’s developing on “The History of Sadness” and a tentative
reaching out to Anna (the excellent Mélanie Laurent), a French actress perhaps looking for more than Oliver can deliver.
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At times, Oliver seems more comfortable with Arthur, his father’s Jack Russell terrier, who speaks in witty subtitles. What may sound precious in description emerges with fervent vigor and truth onscreen. Like his wife, the artist and filmmaker Miranda July, Mills deals in unforced images and sounds that exert their own freedom. McGregor goes bone-deep in a performance of shining subtlety. And a never-better Plummer is simply stupendous, refusing any call to sentiment as he shows us Hal’s resonant lunge at life. Mills works the same way. Beginners is one from the bruised heart.