Christopher Plummer, left, and Ewan McGregor play father and son in writer-director… (Olympus Pictures )
"Beginners," starring Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer, is a buoyant and disarming drama about sons and fathers, death and dying, living and loving and all the ways we find ourselves starting over, hoping to finally get it right.
This fresh peach of a film is plucked out of writer-director Mike Mills' past, its story loosely based on a series of events that shook his world a few years ago. Mills' mother had died and within months his 75-year-old father announced that despite their 44-year marriage he was gay and intended to spend his remaining time seizing the day. Cancer shortened those plans, but not the vim and vigor with which he attacked them.
Still, this is not a sad film, but a sincerely amusing and loving one. It all begins with an ending as McGregor's Oliver packs up the house his father, Hal (Plummer), lived and died in. There are choices to be made — what to save and what to discard — good memories filling in the empty spaces as Oliver glances around the room. What life was like before and after his mother's death, before and after his dad came out of the closet, are dropped in like a slide show of favorite family photos, poignant and funny at the same time.
Just as we're settling in for that tale, another starts up with the free-spirited Anna (Mélanie Laurent) waltzing into the film and Oliver's life at a party a few months later. In the most charming of first encounters, she is speechless, a bad case of laryngitis, which makes for a playful flirt as she scribbles her teases on a notepad. Since he's an artist who spends his days sketching out ideas and emotions on paper, he can relate. They immediately hit it off.
Both stories are told from Oliver's point of view, with the bits and pieces stitched together through scenes, narration and the pen and ink illustrations he sketches. Oliver's artistic side reflects the filmmaker's, and as with Mills' engaging first feature, "Thumbsucker," those tendencies in turn influence the film. Mills and director of photography Kasper Tuxen mix in the drawings — and the actual act of drawing, which McGregor spent some time mastering — to build an eclectic visual palette that moves among the real, the unreal and the surreal. The filmmakers create a little magic along the way, so when the dog starts letting us know what's on his mind (the subtitles help) it somehow makes perfect sense.
That sensibility fits just as perfectly with the delightful performances by McGregor, Plummer and Laurent that grace this film. Though the underlying issues are deeply philosophical ones — identity, sexual orientation, all manner of relationships and all types of love — the actors drift along like clouds, lighter than air. Plummer, in particular, seems to be having the time of his life as an old man in the throes of young love, handling it with elegant aplomb. In other hands, the empathy you feel for the characters and their crises could turn syrupy or maudlin. Instead, they become an amusing and introspective pleasure.
Mills has a way of making ordinary life feel both unique and familiar, and that infuses the film with many small moments to savor. Typical is the sort of irony he mines in the role reversals that come as parents age. The point is particularly well made when Hal wakes Oliver with a late-night phone call to enthuse about the wonderfully loud music he'd just heard at a dance club, wondering if his son knows what it's called. "Probably house music," Oliver tells him, as Hal echoes, "house music, Ok …" jotting it down so he won't forget. It's a tiny detail that ends up saying much about the relationship and how the tougher experiences to come will be managed — from Hal's younger lover, played by Goran Visnjic (one of "ER's" hunky doctors), to his diagnosis and his final decline.
McGregor is the centerpiece throughout, an easy presence that makes room for us to accompany him on the journey. He and Laurent have a kind of quiet chemistry that works well as Oliver tries to apply his father's late-life lessons about love to his own growing feelings for Anna. The actors find ways to breathe life into the scenes without ever overwhelming them.
It all works to make "Beginners" continually surprising from beginning to end. The only regret is that we don't see Mills' inventive work more often.