A man gets to know and then loses his father in Beginners, a charming movie starring Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer.
Shortly after Oliver’s (McGregor) mother dies, his father, Hal (Plummer), tells him that he (Hal) is gay. Oliver always sensed his parents’ marriage wasn’t the greatest — in flashbacks we see young Oliver (Keegan Boos) picking up on a sort of distance between his father and his mother (Mary Page Keller). It’s perhaps because of this that Oliver has had a hard time in his adult life sticking with his own relationships. Meanwhile, newly out Hal is invigorated. He goes dancing, he joins several social groups (film-lovers, political action groups, a group for older gay men) and he meets lots of new friends, including Andy (Goran Visnjic), who becomes his boyfriend. Andy is fun and boisterous, just what the scholarly Hal needs.
And then Hal gets sick.
There are, it seems, three or four storylines weaving themselves together throughout the movie. There is Oliver as a child, a widowed but joyous Hal healthy and enjoying his new life, Hal dealing with cancer that seems to keep getting worse, and Oliver, who when we first meet him, is cleaning out Hal’s house and bringing Hal’s dog Arthur to his house to live. Oliver is in the middle of this deep sadness about the loss of his father — a man who in many ways he was just starting to get to know — when he meets Anna (Melanie Laurent), an actress whose constantly-on-the-move life makes her in many ways similar to can’t-settle-down Oliver.
Beginners is exceptionally sweet, despite (or maybe even because of) its constant thread of sadness throughout the story. Perhaps part of what makes Hal and Oliver’s relationship so dear is that we begin the movie knowing it ends sooner than either would have liked. Oliver seems partly in awe of his dad and partly unsure of who this man is in relation to the man he grew up with. Hal, in small ways, seems to urge Oliver toward a happier and more love-filled life. The actors’ performances and the way they created this layered but loving relationship between father and son is superb and is a joy to watch. The relationship Oliver has with Anna isn’t quite as fully realized. Anna has a bit of that whimsical pixie thing going on, but McGregor and Laurent manage to keep their zanier qualities from running away with the story.
Every description I can think of for this movie makes it sound a bit like an overly frosted cupcake, and it’s not. It never gets cloying in its sweetness; it’s just deeply heartfelt and poignant while still rather funny in a way that is so unusual it’s hard not to want to put a cherry on top. B+
Rated R for language and some sexual content. Written and directed by Mike Mills, Beginners is an hour and 45 minutes long and distributed in by Focus Features.