The title of Mike Mills’ second film—his first was the indie favorite Thumbsucker—is as simple, direct and accurate as can be. Beginners is about beginners. The film itself is a more slippery creature. To tell the story of a confused, very sad, youngish man, his late father and his new girlfriend, Mills chops up time into pieces, shows scenes out of order, and generally keeps the audience off guard—and this age-old technique works quite nicely.
Oddly enough, a line from an ad for Richard Lester’s classic time-shifter Petulia fits this film, too: The story begins in the middle, and works towards the end and the beginning at the same time.
Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is cleaning out the house that belonged to his late father, Hal (Christopher Plummer). In flashbacks, we learn that Hal came out in his 70s, after Oliver’s mother died, and dove into the gay universe wholeheartedly and with total joy. Oliver, however, only seems to be able to have a conversation with his late dad’s Jack Russell terrier—and we learn, through subtitles representing the pooch’s thoughts, that the terrier’s vocabulary is somewhat limited.
The film also flash-forwards to Oliver’s romance with French actress Anna (Mélanie Laurent). They meet at a Halloween party where Oliver, dressed as a Freud, has fallen into listening to other partygoers’ problems; Anna has laryngitis, and asks, via note pad, the central question about Oliver’s personality: “Why are you at a party if you’re so sad?”
We later learn why Anna might find such a sad sack attractive, and it’s one of the film’s many painful—and true—grace notes. We also learn, in childhood flashbacks, what Oliver’s relationship with his mother (a delightful Mary Page Keller) was like. Young Oliver can’t understand his parents’ marriage; if he doesn’t exactly blame himself for their incompatibility, it makes him learn to be suspicious of . . . everything.
Oddly enough, his smart, funny mother seems to have had no effect on his taste in women. This is not to slight Anna; Oliver’s smart, funny father—Plummer is the film’s joyous example of life embraced, if belatedly—seems to have had no effect on his zest for life, either. It is one of Beginners’ many ironies that Oliver and Anna are, in a world of social freedom, such sheepish people; their love of the simple joys sometimes borders on the simple-minded.
If this all sound a little precious, it is. But the details are right, and despite the film’s huge blind spot—none of this heartbreaking ennui would be possible if Ann and Oliver weren’t well-off financially—they ring true.