Beginners (***½)

Beginners is an absolutely lovely little film.  Though ultimately not as delightful as something like Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, this is still one of the better movies of the year.  Writer/director Mike Mills is telling an incredibly personal story here, but he’s still managed to make it accessible and enjoyable.  It’s a romantic dramedy filled with strong performances and a good sense of purpose, despite a plot that deals heavily with the idea of the crisis of identity.  All three main performances are worthy of recognition, as Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, and Melanie Laurent charm you to no end.  McGregor is the lead and does some of his best work in years, while I’d argue Plummer has rarely been better in this supporting turn (far better than the work he did in The Last Station that got him nominated, more as a lifetime achievement award than for the movie), and Laurent proves her outstanding performance in Inglourious Basterds was no fluke.  Throw in a dog whose thoughts we can periodically see in subtitles (it’s a quirk that works for the film) and a vibe that reminds me of a less ambitious Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and you have a very winning cinematic experience.

The year is 2003.  Oliver (McGregor) is an artist dealing with the recent death of his father Hal (Plummer) from cancer (it’s not a spoiler, I promise).  To add to things, only a few years before Hal revealed to Oliver after the death of Oliver’s mother that Hal has always been a gay man and wants to spend his final years living the life he always kept on the inside.  Oliver is supportive but uses this to question his own issues with identity.  Now that his father is gone, Oliver is taking care of his father’s dog and realizes just how alone he is.  When he meets Anna (Laurent) at a party, he finds that for the first time in his life, he’s looking to make a lasting connection.  As his relationship with Anna evolves, Oliver finds himself flashing back on his relationship with his father when he fell ill, as well as thinking back to his childhood with his mother.  This all forms who Oliver has been, but he now realizes that he has a chance to change things and dictate who he’s going to be from now on.

Ewan McGregor seems to thrive in smaller films, and this is no exception.  He plays this complicated part perfectly, and his chemistry with everyone (including the dog) is exceptional.  In fact, his moments with the dog and the dog’s responses are the charming highlight of the film to me, in a film that doesn’t lack for charm.  McGregor isn’t flashy enough to merit serious awards consideration, but the performance is certainly of that level.  As for Christopher Plummer, his emergence as a vibrant figure in the character’s last years is both amusing and somewhat heartbreaking.  We feel for this man who only recently started living his life the way he always wanted to, only to find out he has cancer.  Plummer is excellent.  As for Melanie Laurent, she essays just the type of woman who could inspire this type of change in Oliver.  She’s as quirky as anyone else in the film, but she bonds phenomenally with McGregor and they make one of the most charming on-screen couples of 2011.  There is also good work by Goran Visnjic as Hal’s lover Andy, but it’s the aforementioned big 3 that leave the lasting impression.

Mills impressed me with his debut feature Thumbsucker, and he ups the ante here.  The story is a true one for him, making the screenplay a breeze to write (he actually had a father come out of the closet in his late 70’s), and what’s not based in fact is still perfect for this story.  The writing is subtle and effective.  As a director, Mills throws in little quirks and flourishes that make the story even more unique, like the dog’s subtitles and establishing the period of time that the flick is flashing to by showing a quick slideshow of identifiers.  Things slow down a bit more than I would have liked as the second act settles in and the film ironically feels a little short to me, but these are small complaints.

I really enjoyed Beginners, and I find it hard to believe that anyone wouldn’t.  It’s got charm, heart, and excellent acting to boot.  I recommend this movie highly.  It’s worthy of Oscar consideration, but it’s far too early to tell at this point (I could see the Golden Globes going for it and pigeonholing it as a “Comedy” though). It’s not the type of film that you see every day, and I consider that a plus.  Seek it out…you’ll be glad that you did.