In one memorable scene of writer-director Mike Mills’ film Beginners, a mother (Mary Page Keller) gives her young son (Keegan Boos) a lesson in middle-class angst. When he feels bad, she instructs, he should go in his room and scream till his mood improves — “That’s catharsis.”
“I don’t feel like screaming,” the boy replies, after some thought.
His mother gives him a knowing look. “You will,” she says.
She’s right. Nearly 30 years later, the quietly sad boy has become a quietly sadder man (Ewan McGregor) who can’t find lasting love and expresses himself in a series of cartoon panels called “The Sads,” chronicling the worldwide history of sadness. When he starts dating a beautiful actress (Mélanie Laurent of Inglourious Basterds), she’s quietly sad, too, and as terrified of commitment as he is.
Beginners has been marketed as a quirky, life-affirming comedy in the Little Miss Sunshine vein, but Mills’ second feature is nothing of the kind. It’s both less fun and more thought provoking than its trailer suggests.
Ironically, most of the film’s life affirmation is embodied in the character of McGregor’s recently deceased father (Christopher Plummer), who appears in long flashbacks. Plummer gives a ferociously vital performance as a gay man who’s emerged from the closet for the first time in his 75 years and is determined to enjoy the time he has left. He should, because McGregor’s Oliver, the film’s narrator, has already told us his dad will succumb to cancer just four years after making his big announcement. (His wife preceded him.)
While Dad frequents happening gay clubs, places a personal ad and finds himself a hot, younger boyfriend (Goran Visnjic of “ER,” bizarrely floppy haired and goofy), his son remains ... quietly sad. After his father’s death, Oliver confides his feelings to the Jack Russell terrier he’s inherited, who “answers” him in comic subtitles. Then our protagonist tries tentatively to do what his father did boldly: begin his life anew.
Beginners has its cutesy elements (McGregor meets Laurent at a costume party where he, dressed as Sigmund Freud, “analyzes” her), but it’s not a cutesy film. Maybe it shouldn’t have been a film at all. With its vivid vignettes, ironic narrative frame and frequent time jumps, it reminded me more of an autobiographical indie cartoon — specifically, Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home, also about an adult wrestling with the legacy of a closeted gay dad.
Mills, like his hero, is a graphic designer, and he shows talent for breaking a multigenerational story of family dysfunction into snippets that are sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, sometimes both. But, if Beginners really were a comic, it would devote way too many panels to McGregor and Laurent gazing wanly at each other. The actors are solid, but their characters’ inertia nearly overwhelms the film.
One of Beginners’ surprises is that Oliver’s parents, who messed him up good by lying to the world and doing their screaming in private, are far more likable than their son. The scenes with Plummer and Keller, whom we see interact with their offspring but never with each other, have a bite and verve the Gen X romance lacks. Like Away We Go or the films of Miranda July (yes, there’s a new one coming), this is a story of grown children trying to build viable adult lives from the ground up. They’ve still got a way to go.