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Ewan McGregor in 'Beginners
Focus Features
'Beginners'

Beginners: Film Review

10:16 PM PDT 10/14/2010 by Kirk Honeycutt

The Bottom Line

A smart screenplay and captivating visual devices deliver genuine emotions in "Beginners." 

Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor star as father and son in the Mike Mills-directed film.

A smart screenplay and captivating visual devices deliver genuine emotions in Beginners, a highly personal exploration into the mysteries of love by filmmaker, artist and graphic designer Mike Mills (Thumbsucker). The story is about a man who, like Mills, only learns his father is gay upon the death of his mother. The father comes out to live an aggressively gay and joyous lifestyle ever so briefly before dying of cancer a few years later.

As he tries to make sense of his parents' lives and his own reaction to growing up in a household where feelings were stifled and then to his father making himself over so late in life, Mills takes you on a tender, funny-sad journey into the messiness that is love.

Any marketing campaign will have to emphasize that Beginners is not about being gay or straight but rather about the emotional risks one must hazard for love. The story, all along, is about the son, not the father. The father's new life is an eye-opener not because of his sexuality but because of his willingness to take risks for love.

Ewan McGregor plays 38-year-old Oliver with sadness and bewilderment. His parents' marriage was not loveless but possessed a settled complacency that wrung any passion out of love. This is Oliver's only model for love. In past relationships, he has followed this model right up to the point where he leaves or lets love fall apart.

His father Hal, played by an energetic, twinkle-eyed Christopher Plummer, suddenly presents him with a new model. In what little time he will have left, the father tries to show the son how valuable each passing moment of life truly is, but time runs out before the lesson is fully absorbed.

Now, having inherited his dad's Jack Russell terrier and much confusion, he meets a French actress, Anna (Melanie Laurent of Inglourious Basterds), who is only in Los Angeles for a while. She shakes Oliver out of his sadness -- he falls in love, in fact -- but which model will he follow, the father he grew up with or older man who so baffled him? To make matters worse, Anna too is prone to find ways out of love.

The film takes place in no fixed point in time. The present, past and distant past in scenes between young Oliver and his frustrated mother come in the order Mills thinks will best chart his alter ego's journey. Like the filmmaker, Oliver is a graphic artist so his doodles, sketches and even graffiti illustrate the character's growing self-awareness. So do his conversations with the dog, although the dog's dialogue must, of course, be delivered through subtitles.

Indeed Beginners plays with all sorts of cinematic conventions from a silent-movie first meeting between Oliver and Anna -- she has laryngitis so she communicates with gestures and a note pad -- to sketches and slide shows Oliver arranges to illustrate his mental process in working out the nature of life and love.

All the movie's playfulness rubs off on the actors. Scenes crackle with life. The chemistry among all the actors is terrific. In some scenes, you can just feel the characters hold back and then release a flood of emotions as they tiptoe through the treacherous terrain of unexpected feelings.

The film makes good use of unfamiliar L.A. locations around the Silverlake and Griffith Park areas. The music, credited to several people, often comes simply from a piano, a bit of whimsy mixed with melancholy, while Kasper Tuxen's cinematography and Shane Valentino's production design capture the constantly shifting moods of this tale about people who are just beginning to understand love.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production companies: Olympus Pictures in association with Parts & Labor
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Melanie Laurent, Goran Visnjic, Kai Lennox
Director/screenwriter: Mike Mills
Producers: Leslie Urdang, Dean Vanech, Miranda de Pencier, Lars Knudsen, Jay Van Hoy
Director of photography: Kasper Tuxen
Production designer: Shane Valentino
Music: Roger Neill, Dave Palmer, Brian Reitzell
Costume designer: Jennifer Johnson
Editor: Olivier Bugge Coutte
Sales: UTA
No rating, 104 minutes