When his 75-year-old father, Hal, suddenly announces “I’m gay,” it’s no coming out party for son Oliver who has identity-commitment issues of his own.
The story of Hal (Christopher Plummer) and Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is intertwined in director Mike Mills’ exceptional auto-bio film, Beginners. Ironically, the movie begins with Hal’s death and Oliver being left to cope with demons of his own.
Mills constructs his first person narrative via Oliver weaving in and out of past and present: growing up as witness to his parents’ rather cold, detached marriage of convenience and, secondly, later coping with his father’s new beginning as he takes a lover, Andy (Goran Visnjic).
Hal comes out to Oliver and the world six months after his mother’s death, and though his rebirth also ends rather suddenly with cancer, his short happy life was better late than never. But not necessarily for his son, as the story begins with Oliver dealing with his father’s remains: his chemo meds, ashes and a driveway full of garbage bags waiting for a dumpster.
Oliver has his own baggage, including memories of his mother’s lonely, unfulfilled life and his own inability to connect and maintain any kind of relationship as a son, friend or lover. Nature and nurture have left him ill-equipped.
The one bright spot in this rather dour, naturally-lit film with its subdued palette is his father’s dog, Arthur, a Jack Russell terrier whom Oliver inherits. It clings to him as closely as does Hal’s spirit, which Arthur seems to be. Mills cleverly has Oliver read Arthur’s “mind” – and the terrier then answers in subtitles. Just the sort of light touch Beginners needs.
At his friends’ bidding, Oliver attempts to break out of his blue funk by attending a costume party dressed as Dr. Freud. Inexplicably, the good doctor meets the love of his life to be, or not to be, Anna (Melanie Laurent), during an improvised therapy session. Anna correctly diagnoses Oliver as a physician in need of healing himself, but not without empathy. That she does so with scribblings while suffering from laryngitis was an unnecessary stretch.
Despite her own shadowy past, these two wounded souls connect at some needy, shaky level but commitment doesn’t come as easily for either. As if reflecting our own impatience and empathy, Arthur, after a series of fits and starts, asks, “Are we married yet?”
Oliver has a few issues left to resolve. Number one is coming to grips with his father outing himself and the part that he played, or lack thereof, in the lie his parents perpetuated for society’s sake. In a key scene late in the film after his father’s death, surrounded by his new male-dominated family, he confronts Andy, whom he has kept at a distance.
Sensing Oliver’s conflict, Andy says, “It’s because I’m gay, isn’t it?” But relationships are more complicated than that. “It’s because my father loved you,” Oliver responds; and when they movingly hug, he is embracing more than the past.
Oliver and Anna have reached an impasse. Now that he has built a bridge or two, their future leap of faith has a better chance of survival. Mills measures his modern morality tale on the times they are a-changing with witty, revealing visual asides with Oliver’s commentary on past decades -virtual power points.
Over images of the 50s, 60s and so on, Oliver observes, “This is smoking … this is a picnic … this is a family … this is what love looks like.” Abject lessons in history and a chance to begin again.