American graphic artist Oliver (McGregor) is grieving for his father Hal (Plummer) when he embarks on a romance with French actress Anna (Laurent). He remembers the recent past when Hal revealed that he was gay, and that he was dying of cancer.
Mike Mills is one of those achingly hip US artist-directors who’s done pop promos (Air), album covers (Beastie Boys) and edgy movies (Thumbsucker). He’s also married to toast-of-the-indie-scene Miranda July (Me And You And Everyone We Know). So it’s no surprise that this semi-autobiographical drama has a quirky visual flair and an offbeat sense of humour.
Ewan McGregor plays Oliver, a graphic artist who introduces his late parents through a fast-paced snapshot montage. His Jewish mother married his father knowing his sexuality but the news came as a bombshell to the adult Oliver — as did the news that Hal (Christopher Plummer) has terminal cancer. The film opens after Hal’s death, but flashbacks show Oliver visiting his father at home and in hospital. These scenes are among the film’s best: Plummer aces it as the kindly, stubborn, outspoken Hal and Goran Visnjic plays brilliantly against type as his younger lover. There’s plenty of humour as Hal embraces his gay lifestyle under the gaze of his surprised son.
But this fails to dig deep into Oliver’s feelings about his father’s sexuality: it’s hard to believe he’d accept such a radical change in his lifestyle without busting a gut. Oliver’s broad mind is laudable but you suspect Mills may be editing his own past — or at least, holding something back. McGregor, meanwhile, does a nice job of being likable and witty but doesn’t bring extra depth to the role.
Sparking up the contemporary scenes is Inglourious Basterds’ Mélanie Laurent as Anna, whom Oliver meets at a party. But her kooky-pretty French actress routine begins to feel like a bit of an archetype. A little too long is spent on this on-off romance when it might have been better devoted to a subject with real emotional pay-off: Hal’s gradual demise. Sure, it’s not sexy, but the hospital scenes are well observed and full of affection for a character determined to live life to the full to the end.
To call Beginners self-indulgent would be unkind — it’s often entertaining. There’s even a cute dog. But it’s a very personal film that doesn’t have a clear aim for the audience to root for, be it romantic or familial. Still, it’s a pleasant watch given that every scene is well made, well performed and believable.
With good performances and characters, Beginners is an enjoyable, amusing and occasionally poignant watch. Indie film fans will want to catch it, but it falls short of being a must-see.