Begin the begin: Mills makes an exquisite father-son taleMovie Review Thursday, June 9th, 2011
MOVIE REVIEW: The relationship between a gay son and his straight father is about as fraught and awkward as any, and this is reflected in the history of queer cinema, which has mined this conflict like it was a ten-mile-deep cache of diamonds: The Sum of Us, La Mission, Beautiful Thing, etc.
For obvious reasons, the opposite story – a gay father and his straight son – hasn’t found its way into too many movies. This is only one of the things that makes Beginners, Mike Mills’ exquisite new film starring Ewan McGregor as the straight son and Christopher Plummer as his newly out father, different.
The other things – a non-linear story structure and a smart, funny and moving voice-over – are seamlessly combined with the kind of acting you expect from late-fall movies released as Oscar bait. I assume Beginners will be re-released at the end of the year just for that purpose, if for anything Plummer’s performance, arguably the best of his extremely long career.
McGregor plays Oliver, a 38-year-old art director, whose father Hal (Plummer) has recently died, four years after coming out following the death of his wife. The film follows Oliver’s grieving and burgeoning relationship with Anna (Mélanie Laurent from Inglourious Basterds), a French actress, while flashing back to Hal’s coming out, his relationship with an awkward and much younger man (ER’s Goran Visnjic) and his fight with cancer.
Both Oliver and Hal are dealing with beginnings and endings; thus the rather on-point title of the film. For the back story on why these starts and finishes are so hard and so meaningful, Mills includes flashbacks of conversations between a very young Oliver (Keegan Boos) and his funny and frustrated mother Georgia (Mary Page Keller), as well as carefully curated historical images of the world Hal and Georgia experienced as children and young adults.
Added to the mix are Oliver’s artful and hilarious drawings of “the history of sadness” and Hal’s, then Oliver’s, Jack Russell terrier Arthur, whose subtitled lines are extraordinarily wise.
Yes, there’s a lot going on in Beginners. But Mills and his editor Olivier Bugge Coutté splice the present day of the film with flashbacks, voice-overs and archival imagery with such careful skill that the complex, emotional through-line is totally clear.
Mills, who wrote the film from his own experience with his father, is examining the quest for love and the power of fear and sadness to get in the way. The pastiche-like style of the film and its witty, sly humor – particularly in the form of Arthur – prevent it all from getting too heavy.
But the trio of McGregor, Plummer and Laurent provide such authentic emotion to the film, I found it impossible not to cry. Laurent communicates as much with her mischievous, haunting eyes as she does with her lines (which may be because she’s somewhat underwritten).
McGregor, as always, is the perfect straight man (as it were), providing a non-showy but deeply empathic performance that rarely is rewarded in the way that Plummer’s will be. The star of The Sound of Music, among others, is charmingly giddy as a man who waited his whole life to be who he felt inside and his quiet raging against the dying of the light provides some of the best sick-bed scenes since Terms of Endearment.
While another gay movie that both begins and ends with the death of the gay character is perhaps more than one too many, Beginners celebrates both him and his gayness while also celebrating the universal struggle to love and be loved.
Written and directed by Mike Mills
Starring Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, and Mélanie Laurent
Inexplicably rated R
Opens June 17
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