"You point, I'll drive."
Mike Mills, not the drummer for REM, made a name for himself directing avant-garde music videos for artists like Air & Moby, before making the leap to feature films with 2005's Thumbsucker. Whether or not that film was based on personal experiences, he hasn't said, but for his second feature 2011's Beginners, he mined some pretty personal stuff to make a semi-autobiographical gem.
Oliver Fields (Ewan McGregor) is a graphic artist who has just lost his father to cancer. Five years earlier, his mother passed away from cancer, and almost immediately afterwards, his 75 year-old father Hal (Christopher Plummer) tells him that he's gay. He had been gay his whole life, he just put it to the side to have a normal, stable family life. 2 months after his father dies, two friends from work take Oliver to a costume party where he meets (cute) Anna (Melanie Laurent, Shoshana from Inglourious Basterds). Anna has laryngitis at the time and communicates to Oliver by writing in a notepad. The two hit it off and begin a relationship.
The film jumps around in time a lot, but it's never difficult to follow. There are three basic time periods that the film covers, Oliver's childhood (mainly his pre-teen years and his connection to his mother), the last five years of his father's life, and his relationship with Anna. After his father dies, Oliver inherits his father's Jack Russell terrier Arthur, who gives the dog from The Artist a run for his money as best supporting dog of the year. Arthur can't stand to be left alone, so Oliver brings him pretty much everywhere he goes.
The dog also speaks occasionally in subtitles which is a wonderful device as it shows the dog understands the people in the film better than they understand themselves. There's a lot in this film that I could see some audience members finding twee, but I think that almost all of it works. Another example of this is when Anna calls Oliver immediately after he leaves the party but still can't speak, so she communicates to him by pressing the keypad.
Ewan McGregor is a wonderful actor and never more so than when he engages an audience's empathy. We feel genuinely sad and conflicted along with him throughout the film. Oliver's central conflict seems to be resolving the people he thought his parents were with who they actually were. He seems unable to love and commit because he watched two people lie to each other for an entire 44 year marriage, so how does he know what true love looks like. There's a very poignant moment where Oliver talks to Hal's lover Andy (Goran Visnjic) about why Oliver hasn't called or talked to Andy since Hal died.
Andy thinks it's because he's gay, but Oliver tells him that it's because his father loved Andy so much.
As a child, Oliver seems to have internalized so much of the pain and suffering that his parents went through, that he was unable to truly cope with his father's new life. He and his father have a wonderful relationship on the surface, and Oliver is there for his father a lot at the end of his life, but in many ways, Oliver's uncomfortableness around his father's new friends has to do with the fact that he can't reconcile his father's true happiness here at the end of his life. Oliver seems to think, did my dad not truly love me when I was younger because he was not his true self? It's deep, heady stuff to deal with when you're also dealing with the imminent death of your father to boot.
Which brings me to Christopher Plummer's performance. He is sublime in this film, playing a man trying to finally embrace who he is. We can see the unabashed joy in his face as he tries to cram 75 years worth of living into his last 5 years of life. His wardrobe explodes with vibrant colors and tight fitting fabrics and he begins wearing neckerchiefs. In one great scene, he calls Oliver after having gone to his first gay bar and tries explaining to him what the music they played sounded like, then exploding with delight when his son tells him that it's called house music, writing it down so he can presumably buy some to keep in the house.
The reason that Plummer's performance works so well is that he underplays everything. He avoids the temptation that must surely exist for an actor taking on a role like this to chew all the available scenery and he imbues his character with so much more humanity as a result. It's a wonderful performance, sure to bring him a long-deserved Academy Award.
I can't recommend Beginners enough. It captures so well the difficulty that people have showing others their emotions, especially when they've been burned in the past. Oliver is one of the best written main characters in years because he has an incredibly rich and carefully hidden inner-life that bubbles to the surface every now and then just to be suppressed for fear of getting hurt. It's a brilliant film with tons of emotions flying around, yet it's also very funny and moves effortlessly for all of its 105 minutes. Anyone who's ever been hurt, anyone who's ever been afraid of getting hurt, anyone who's ever been terrified of truly feeling something can relate to these characters. They are you and me.