Review: Performances Lift These “Beginners”

We all dread ending up like our parents. That fear is no doubt compounded when your 70-something father tells you that he’s dying of cancer and gay--really, who wants to face death just as their facing themselves? That’s reality for Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer in their new film, “Beginners," a film that may suffer from some narrative problems, but is worth tracking down for some great work from its leads.

McGregor’s character, Oliver, tells the story of his father’s rebirth and death in flashback, from the perspective of navigating his own budding romance with with Anna (Melanie Laurent), a beautiful French actress he meets one night at a party. Oliver’s memories of his father—and to a lesser extent, his mother--give him insight into his relationship with Melanie, while at the same time, his relationship with Melanie sheds light on his father’s final years.

Oliver and Hal came of age on opposite sides of a great generational divide. Hal grew up in a country where conservative social mores forced him into the shadows (and sham marriages and bathrooms) of 1950s America. For Hal, however, what stands between him and love are barriers entirely of his own creation; he so fears falling into the type of joyless marriage his parents endured that he sabotages each of his serious relationships.

The film often feels disjointed, with the constant flipping back and forth between the past and the present, photo montages meant to dramatize the similarities and differences between the two generations, and the talking dog--it’s difficult for the narrative to achieve any measure of rhythm.

But the acting is so strong from the three principles, and so much of the writing, especially for Oliver’s narration, is so good, that the film largely works. “Beginners” is based largely on the experiences of writer-director Mike Mills, whose parents were married for 45 years before his father came out to him, and Mills expertly makes this improbable scenario feel very real.

Mills’ greatest error was in standing by while Goran Visnjic developed the character Andy, Hal’s much younger boyfriend. Visnjic plays him like a mincing man-child, a near imbecile with whom it’s hard to imagine any real spiritual connection, especially for a man like Hal.

For all of "Beginners"'s structural flaws, Mills and his cast still deliver a film filled with moving, thoughtful and funny moments that shed light on how difficult it can be to allow yourself to be happy.

"Beginners" goes into limited release Friday, June 3

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