We take a second look at Mike Mills’s autobiographical second feature.
Who would have guessed that indie filmmaker Mike Mills was capable of anything as achingly personal as Beginners? The writer-director’s first feature, 2005’s Thumbsucker, seemed to promise nothing but artificial insight and sentiment. Like so many Sundance-approved movies, it was a tired treatise on the soul-sucking emptiness of suburbia. Beginners is a different animal altogether. Excepting maybe The Tree of Life, it’s as close to memoir as any American film released this year.
Ewan McGregor stars as a thirtysomething illustrator whose father, played by the great Christopher Plummer, comes out at 75. Resolved to be more than just “theoretically gay,” the elderly man kick-starts a second life, leaving his son to reflect on his childhood and the relationship between his parents. All of this actually happened to Mills, which you might guess even if the filmmaker hadn’t said so in interviews. From the first scene, in which McGregor’s character rifles through the belongings of his now-deceased father, one can sense an emotional investment in every nook and cranny of the film.
Talking via voice-over about his mother, McGregor’s Oliver speculates that she spent the final days of her life “skipping back and forth in time inside her head.” He might well be describing Beginners itself, which leaps between points on its time line with the freedom and fluidity of a wandering mind. So raw and specific are the scenes with Plummer that the present-day material—devoted chiefly to McGregor’s romance with a French dream girl (Mélanie Laurent)—can’t help but feel fancifully invented. That said, even the more movie-ish moments shimmer with feeling. Any filmmaker who can wring genuine pathos from a subtitled dog is definitely going places. (Available on VOD, Amazon Instant Video and VUDU Tue 1. On DVD and Blu-ray Nov 15.)