Mike Mills follows up his first feature, the interesting but precious coming-of-age comedy-drama “Thumbsucker,” with a more mature, but still quirky, take on parent and child. “Beginners” doesn’t entirely avoid affectation, but overall it’s a touching story of two generations, father and son, each striking out on a new path.
Christopher Plummer plays Hal, a museum curator who comes out only at age 74 after his wife’s death and finds a significant other in a much younger man, sweet but somewhat flaky Andy (Goran Visnjic). His son Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is a lonely, depressed cartoonist whose work concentrates, in minimalist style, on subjects like “The History of Sadness.”
Their stories aren’t played out chronologically, but by skipping back and forth among several plot strands. One offers scenes of young Oliver (Keegan Boos) being raised largely by his eccentric mother (Mary Page Keller), one of whose peculiar habits involves having the boy theatrically fall “dead” at every wave of her hand. Another follows Oliver caring for Hal, now 78, as he goes through the stages of terminal cancer that ends with his death. And the third, after Hal’s demise, portrays Oliver’s on-again, off-again romance with freewheeling actress Anne (Melanie Laurent).
Mills juggles these strands artfully, and his touch is for the most part attractively gentle, choosing episodes that shine light on the emotional fragility of the characters but generally not overplaying them. There are instances, though, when he strives somewhat too hard for an off-kilter effect. The broad, somewhat shrill depiction of Oliver’s mother, for example, almost seems to come from a different movie altogether, although the tone can be justified by recalling that it represents the cartoonist’s exaggerated recollections of his boyhood rather than simple reality.
More problematic is the amount of screen time Mills devotes to Arthur, Hal’s Jack Russell terrier that Oliver adopts after his dad’s death. True, Cosmo—the pup that assumes the role—is incredibly cute and photogenic, and the actors appear to be enjoying him immensely. The audience will, too. But it’s always a sign of weakness when a director employs a darling canine so much. It can easily upstage the humans.
Happily in this case the others hold their own. Plummer gives an especially rich performance as a man who finally decides to be true to himself—he has an especially fine scene where he explains his choices in life to his son, which he invests with an almost startling range of feelings in a very short compass. But McGregor matches him beat for beat in their screen time together. McGregor also scores in his sequences with the lovely Laurent, though both of them have to share more of their scenes with Cosmo. And while this is essentially a three-character piece, both Visnjic and Keller have their moments, the former making you completely forget his leading-man image.
Technically “Beginners” has a pleasantly homely feel, with cinematography by Kaspar Tuxen that avoids coming across as too slick. But special praise is due editor Olivier Bugge Coutte, whose keeps the various narrative strands clear while maintaining a trim running-time.
This is a definite advance on Mills’s first feature, and it makes one look forward to his third.