It was filmmaker Ang Lee who once said that sadness is the most beautiful and overwhelming emotion of all. “But sadly,” he told me at the Toronto International Film Festival, “it’s also the emotion producers are often most reluctant about.”
He’ll love Beginners then, a complex, stream-of-consciousness film by Mike Mills, an apparently autobiographical feature about a man (Ewan McGregor) who’s processing the news that his septuagenarian dad (Christopher Plummer) has come out as gay. If it sounds unusual, then I’m describing it perfectly. Like Mills’ last feature, Thumbsucker, this is an entirely odd film.
Buy here’s what’s most astonishing about Beginners: despite all of the possible pitfalls, despite every chance that this thing could — and perhaps should — fall flat on its sentimental ass, here is a film that truly works, operating on a vast number of complex levels, touching on numerous big life issues, without ever succumbing to the kind of cheap mawkishness one expects from a standard American movie (even the independent kind). As with The Kids Are All Right, I went in expecting to hate this film; the poster and trailer make it look sappy. But like The Kids Are All Right, Beginners won me over, big time. It should be on every queer cinephile’s go-to list this summer. It’s another example, along with Lee’s Brokeback Mountain and Kirby Dick’s amazing documentary Outrage, of straight directors handling queer-related material brilliantly.
Mills sets up the basic premise right away: soon after learning Dad is gay, the revelation brings father and son closer together. In flashback, McGregor can peer into his childhood and realize why his parents’ marriage, though cordial, was so loveless, and why Mom longed for a bit more passion.
Mills leaps between past, present and future at a pace that’s breakneck, but never maddening. Plummer manages, at the ripe old age of 76, to land a boyfriend (that’s a bit of a stretch, but Mills convinces us to buy into it) but is then hit with the news that he also has inoperable cancer. Meanwhile, McGregor is dealing with his own hetero-intimacy issues: why is he not capable of forming an enduring relationship? (This opens the door to what is perhaps the film’s main weakness, a rather predictable tryst with Euro-sexpot Mélanie Laurent.)
McGregor and Plummer both deliver amazing, subtle and laudable performances. This is one of Toronto-born Plummer’s finest hours, and he’s earned another Oscar nomination, if not win.
Some reviewers have argued there’s something a bit superficial in the way in which Mills careens over so much, and often in swift, short scenes. But I would argue that’s part of the film’s intelligence. Beginners is intense, packing what feels like hundreds of therapy sessions into a single feature: there’s father-son bonding, a gay man coming out at 75, terminal illness, intimacy issues and an adorable dog left behind when dad passes on — everything a filmmaker could possibly pack into a weepie. Yes, some of the scenes in Beginners feel maddeningly incomplete, but that’s part of what makes it so much like real life: the emotional experiences we long for are often the most fleeting, while the harsher ones seem to stick around the longest.