"Beginners" is wonderfully affecting because of the risks it takes
Putting yourself in a movie is inherently risky, though perhaps inevitable (we’re all looking at you, Steven). Mike Mills does so in a big way in “Beginners,” a film that is at least in some way autobiographical. Ewan McGregor stands in for Mills, who wrote and directed the film about himself and his father (Christopher Plummer, terrific as always) that deftly cuts between three different time periods.
The late-life reveal of Mills’ father’s sexual orientation (coming after the death of Mills’ mother), along with a terminal cancer diagnosis, has a profound impact on Mills. The story unfolds through three time periods: Mills’ childhood, his time with his father during his illness and his time with French actress Mélanie Laurent (Inglorious Basterds) after the death of his father.
That the film never feels cloying is something of a miracle. After all, the core theme is right there in the title; it’s never too late for a fresh start, and that is most convincingly portrayed through the deeply affecting performance from Plummer. He’s a joy onscreen, and his newly out life is filled with joy, irrespective of his illness.
While the implication is Plummer’s new beginning serves as something of an inspiration for McGregor to do the same, it never feels like a prop. Perhaps that’s because each character feels fully fleshed out and served by the story. That’s a credit to Mills’ writing and directing. While the voiceovers and narrative may belong to McGregor, it’s hard to argue this is his story alone.
More than new beginnings, “Beginners” explores how parents impact the decisions made by their children. Plummer gets married because he sees it as his best available option, while McGregor is perpetually single as he waits for what he expects to be something perfect.
To its credit, the film doesn’t judge these character’s approaches to love or life, so much as it suggests a healthy dose of introspection. Both characters, though opposites in their approaches, seem unhappy in their lives, and as such choose something new.
That’s where Laurent comes in. Despite the death of his father, McGregor still needs another push. Where Plummer was an opposite, Laurent is someone like him. She’s where the film finds some much-needed balance, as McGregor begins to see his own faults presented in someone else.
It never reaches the heights of the Plummer-McGregor arc, though perhaps it’s unfair to judge it in that light. It does present a reminder that McGregor is one of the better working actors today, despite his penchant for picking so-so projects.
“Beginners” makes a series of risky decisions, and by successfully executing so many of them ends up being a wonderfully affecting film. It manages to be about new beginnings without abandoning the lives lived before. That’s something to be admired.