Mike Mills’ debut 2005 feature “Thumbsucker” encapsulated the early 21st-century American indie movement in a nutshell: a quirky, whimsical comedy/drama about a sympathetic, oddball outsider, a cast chock full of excellent character actors, an oh-so-clever script, a shakable but ultimately optimistic worldview. It was yet another entry in the Wes Anderson school of charmingly idiosyncratic storytelling, a barrage of films that has included “Juno,” “Rocket Science,” “City Island,” “Me and You and Everyone We Know” (directed by Mills’ wife, Miranda July), and recent entries like “Cedar Rapids” and the upcoming “Terri.” Don’t get me wrong, I highly recommend “Thumbsucker;” its eccentricities came not from a Diablo Cody-esque desire to demonstrate its own cuteness, but a sense that Mills simply wasn’t taking himself too seriously.
It’s that self-conscious avoidance of solemnity that keeps Mills’ sophomore feature “Beginners” from falling into any of many potential pitfalls. Semi-autobiographical, “Beginners” deals with Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a graphic designer who must cope with the consecutive revelations that his 75-year old father Hal (Christopher Plummer) a) was a closeted homosexual his entire married life, and b) is now gravely ill. Considering that, it’s a wonder that “Beginners” manages not to become a film that is either about “ZOMG GAY PEOPLE” or “WAAHH CANCER IS SAD.” Eschewing the most obvious avenues, Mills instead keeps the focus very tight on Oliver and his emotional struggles. Since Oliver is Mills’ personal surrogate, I suppose this direction should be more selfish than surprising. But there is a poignancy to Oliver’s story, a resonance beyond a son just embracing his father’s sexuality (in fact, the way “Beginners” employs homosexuality as a major plot point and yet makes it a complete thematic non-issue is extremely refreshing).
For Oliver, it’s not the fact that his father is gay that bothers him; it’s the idea that his parents may have stuck in a loveless marriage for so many years, denying themselves a true shot at happiness. That nagging sense of betrayal has clearly haunted Oliver for years, even before Hal’s revelation; “Beginners” leaps back and forth between three different time periods (Oliver and Hal during Hal’s sickness, Oliver after Hal’s death, and flashbacks to Oliver’s childhood), and the uniting factor is Oliver’s melancholic gaze and shuffling, puppy dog demeanor. Oliver has wandered sadly from one relationship to the next, afraid of commitment because he’s so sure things will never work out.
Enter: that most convenient, illogical of indie movie stock characters, yes, it’s the Manic Pixie Dream Girl!! She’s gorgeous, charming, completely unattached and of course, completely into you and your emotional neediness. All you need is a proper Meet Cute (in this case, an inexplicable costume party), and you’re on your way!
OK, sorry, I’m being rather harsh (no, I’m not) on Anna (Mélanie Laurent), the French actress with whom Oliver begins a love affair a few months after his father’s passing. Anna is nowhere near as infuriatingly imaginary as Natalie Portman in “Garden State” or Kirsten Dunst in “Elizabethtown;” Mills gives her more baggage and a more rounded personality than those waifs, even if her very existence still strikes us as rather wishful thinking. Anna doesn’t make the film careen off the rails the way she could’ve, but the relationship between her and Oliver does drag on a bit too long (and I’m incredibly patient when it comes to anything involving Laurent).
In the casting of Laurent and her on-screen doppelganger, we can see where Mills breaks with the American-indie mold and seeks out other influences: namely, European cinema. In its subtlety, quietly sorrowful atmosphere and general lack of conflict or confrontation, “Beginners” feels decidedly…French. Technically, you have to define “Beginners” as heartfelt and optimistic; in the end, as the title implies, it’s all about how it’s never too late to start over, to find the life you’re looking for. But this disclosure doesn’t feel as satisfying as it would in your typical Hollywood flick. Like the European auteurs, Mills doesn’t gloss over the loneliness and suffering that we’ll all encounter along our road to happiness. Hey, at least there is happiness at some point. That’s more than Bergman ever managed.
Countering that sobering sense of realism, Mills has certainly retained plenty of his indie appeal. A subtitled terrier, some amusing (and remarkably moving) stream-of-consciousness narration by Oliver, and a few memory-testing camera tricks demonstrate that Mills’ style from “Thumbsucker” has not been completely abandoned, but has simply matured. Again, Mills avoids the trap of getting too caught up in these gimmicks, just employing them enough to balance out Oliver’s dejection.
Plummer’s performance has been singled out, and the veteran Brit does deserve high praise for not making Hal a 100% genial, adorable old man. Yes, Hal suddenly embracing his sexuality leads to some amusing situations, but there are some lingering questions – why did he stick in such an unfulfilling marriage for so long? If it was for Oliver’s sake, they seem to have kept up the charade for longer than necessary. Did he lack the courage to come out until his wife had died? Plummer brings that slight touch of human fallibility to the role that keeps Hal believable.
Meanwhile, McGregor has a great face for emotive distress, but I was particularly impressed by Mary Page Keller as Georgia, Oliver’s mother, whose brief flashback appearances are a clinic in dissatisfaction. Laurent…well, she certainly has the least to work with (“Some people think things will never work out…others of us…believe in magic” **HUURGHHH**), and does what she can. But something tells me Miranda July might want to lock that shit down.
Now in indie theaters.
Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars