The quirky, overly stylized branch of American independent film settles into an agreeable mediocrity with Beginners, a perfectly nice movie with perfectly nice performances that resists every opportunity to set itself apart. Writer/director Mike Mills draws very closely from his own life, thinly fictionalizing what happened when his father came out as gay late in life, and died just five years later. Tossing in a love story, a cute dog and a lot of visual tricks Mills jazzes up the simple story but doesn't actually add much significance to it; it floats along in its non-linear narrative and moments of real grace, but try as it might it never comes around to feeling special.
Though the unerring okay-ness of Beginners does lend an even bigger spotlight to Christopher Plummer, who's dynamic and charming and absolutely effortless as Hal, a man who knew he was gay but saw no choice but to marry a woman anyway in the constrictive 1950s. Years later, once his wife (played in flashbacks by Mary Page Keller) has passed away, Hal summons the courage to come out to his adult son Oliver (Ewan McGregor), an event Oliver narrates to us by saying he remembers his father wearing a purple sweater as he broke the news, but it was actually a robe. Even with Oliver narrating, setting the frames and understanding of the scene, Plummer steals it out from under him, but that moment is one of many in which Beginners, so rooted in Mills's own perspective, feels too navel-gazing to truly appreciate its best asset.
The film opens with Hal's death, and we meet him entirely through Oliver's memory, as he mopes about his father's bright Los Angeles home throwing things out, attempting to bond with the left-behind dog and filtering through memories of the man he was only beginning to understand. He's also, of course, got a new romance, with a French actress named Anna (Melanie Laurent) whom he meets nauseatingly cute at a costume party-- he's dressed as Sigmund Freud, she's dressed as a man and has laryngitis, so she can only communicate through a pad and pen. Laurent gives good Manic Pixie Dream Girl, especially when acting only with her eyes, but Anna is a well-dressed, faux-insightful cipher, a symbol of the life Oliver can have once he moves out of mourning but not much more. The shortcomings of her story only serve to illustrate that all the insights in the father-son relationship are most likely pure autobiography.
Filmed in a lot of lovely locations, and with a handful of artistic flourishes that really do work-- montages of old photographs and McGregor's voiceover often hit emotional beats the story does not-- Beginners is lovely to watch, but in the end a little too easy and shallow. Plummer's performance earns the price of admission, but just barely.
Reviewed By: Katey Rich