Plot summaries you don’t hear everyday: Mom’s death causes dad to come out of the closet to son at age 75. Yet, this is exactly what happened to director Mike Mills, who turned the incident into a film about love, loss and commitment. Beginners released last year, and won Christopher Plummer a Supporting Actor Oscar. Plummer plays Hal, an octogenarian who, having lived a lie for most of his life, decides that he doesn’t “want to just be theoretically gay”.
Beginners opens with Hal’s death, and then switches back and forth in time. We see his son Oliver as a child, then as an adult dealing with his father’s homosexuality, and, post Hal’s death, as a commitment-phobe trying to maintain a relationship with French actress Anna (played by French actress Melanie Laurent). Ewan McGregor plays graphic artist Oliver, a character modeled on Mills (down to his love for dogs, the brief making-of feature confirms), who’s designed album sleeves for Sonic Youth, Air and Beastie Boys.
The psychology of Beginners is a bit pat – it transpires that Oliver can’t maintain long-term relationships as a result of his parents’ strained marriage. But the film piles detail upon winsome detail until it becomes very difficult not to like. Some are Sundance-ready crowd-pleasers, like the Jack Russell with subtitled thoughts. Some are plain and simple good taste – any film that uses Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” is fine with us. And though the predominant mood is one of gentle melancholia, Beginners isn’t above a little fun. Most of this comes via Hal’s belated attempts to live a fully gay life before he dies of cancer, though Mills also takes a dig at himself when he has Oliver turn up as Freud at a costume party. The three leads (four, if you count Cosmo the dog) do a fine job, especially Plummer, whose flowering in character parts over the past decade is proof that it’s possible, if one tries, to escape the shadow of Captain von Trapp.
A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi.