Playing an emotionally asphyxiated illustrator whose cancer-stricken dad comes out of the closet at age 75, Ewan McGregor looks positively yummy in Beginners, a gay-is-OK dramedy from the distributor that brought us The Kids Are All Right. In fact, this semi-autobiographical movie by SoCal skater-boy-turned-graphic-designer-and-filmmaker Mike Mills has no shortage of the adorable. There’s a Jack Russell terrier that speaks in subtitles, a French pixie who doesn’t speak at all because she has laryngitis (which eventually gives way to an ah-dor-aw-blah accent), and a scene in which the artist and the pixie go roller-skating with the dog—in an apartment-building hallway, yet! Dying old Dad is cute, too, hosting a party for his new gay friends where they all watch The Times of Harvey Milk.
So Beginners might sound insufferable, but it isn’t—or at least not completely. Mills’s second feature (after Thumbsucker) has way too many quirks for its own good, although it also flaunts a rare freedom to jump back and forth in time—before and after Dad goes to that gay-pride parade in the sky. Mills even adds a touch of the experimental through slideshow interludes that free-associatively riff on photo-album and pop-culture images from then and now. And the writer/director’s alter ego, Oliver (McGregor), who’s working on a downbeat sketch-art series called “The History of Sadness,” periodically likes to spray ironic “historical consciousness” graffiti on L.A. buildings (e.g., “1983: Chicken McNuggets”)—so the movie has that modest charm in its favor as well.
Beginners does take forever to get going, which is evidently the point, as the film is about people newly learning to be themselves. Oliver, 38 going on 13, is first seen gathering his late father’s belongings, including the subtitled terrier (“I know 150 words. . . .”); then he narrates a brief history of Dad’s life via still photos from 1955 on. Flashback to white-haired Dad, a/k/a Hal (Christopher Plummer, in a lovably hammy turn): “I’m gay,” he tells his son—twice, actually, in a row and in different clothing each time, as Mills establishes that his directorial style will stay queer even when conventional drama would compel another filmmaker to play it straight. A third time frame has preteen Oliver (Keegan Boos) enduring his casually dysfunctional mom (Mary Page Keller), whose unflattering purpose in the film is to explain Hal’s former bout of sexual repression and Oliver’s ongoing one.
A more detailed female character—however slightly—is the aforementioned pixie, Anna (Mélanie Laurent from Inglourious Basterds), a French actress who spends half the film mute and much of the other half suicidal. That Mills is married to fellow twee-film auteur Miranda July, while Oliver struggles to keep Anna happy enough to date him, helps put the “semi” in “semiautobiographical.” Still, on the evidence of Beginners, Mills, like Oliver, favors changing the subject when things get too heavy, the director cutting to another goofy photo montage or graffiti spree to defend against the kind of melodrama that July, for example, allows more freely in Me and You and Everyone We Know.
It’s actually this stereotypically male stoicism of the filmmaker, more than his tale of a hip oldster enjoying a much-younger boyfriend (Goran Visnjic) en route to the cemetery, that gives Beginners whatever poignancy it has. Certainly the movie, which is about emotional evasion as much as it is a symptom of it, represents a progression for Mills not only from the merely juvenile Thumbsucker, but from the early short films—such as Paperboys and Deformer—that found the former skate punk fixating almost creepily on boys and their toys. Beginners may culminate in the grown-up hugs and tears that no doubt encouraged Focus Features to buy it in Toronto last fall, but it’s strongest as the story of an artist who, in his own way, has only begun to come out.