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After a False Start, a Second Chance at Love

Beginners (2011)

Focus Features

Sober and unsentimental, “Beginners” matter-of-factly dissects the life traps of a commitment phobe through his fuzzy recollections of childhood trauma and his late father’s coming out. But precisely because of its earnestness, the film is easily one of the most moving moviegoing experiences this year alongside the equally fascinating “The Arbor.” Coincidentally, both involve unloving families leaving their members scarred for life. But these films aren’t as bitter and cathartic as one might expect. In fact, they reach the kind of epiphanous wisdom that generally seems only attainable through years of therapy.

“Beginners” commences as Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is cleaning out the house after his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) has lost his battle with Stage 4 cancer. Oliver nonchalantly recounts via voice-over his father’s announcing his gay predilections after wife Georgia (Mary Page Keller) passed away, then subsequently joining gay social clubs and carousing at gay discos before meeting a much younger boyfriend, Andy (Goran Visnjic). Oliver jogs his memory further back to his parents’ perfunctory, loveless marriage that has spelled doom for his own series of love affairs. But if blame is to be cast, it is only cast toward a time when people thought therapy or marriage could “fix” homosexuality. Inspired by glimpses of the tender love shared by Hal and Andy, Oliver meditates on his pathological commitment issues as his new relationship with Anna (Mélanie Laurent of “Inglourious Basterds”) starts to blossom.

Given that Oliver is a graphic artist by trade, writer-director Mike Mills employs a lot of sepia-toned photos, yellowed magazine clippings, hand-drawn doodles and various odds and ends in the storytelling. There is even a dog named Arthur (who’s called Cosmo in real life) who channels thoughts through subtitles. While all this is awfully quirky even by indiewood standards, Mr. Mills has utilized everything so unceremoniously that it doesn’t come across as overtly cute or saccharine. These tangible mementoes actually serve to help Oliver — and in turn, us — navigate through the more abstract memories and psychosis, which is quite an inspired way to communicate these concepts. Despite its staid tone, “Beginners” ultimately becomes so deeply resonant that you should pack some Kleenexes just in case.


Opens on June 3 in New York and Los Angeles and on July 22 in Britain.

Written and directed by Mike Mills; director of photography, Kasper Tuxen; edited by Olivier Bugge Coutté; music by Roger Neill, David Palmer and Brian Reitzell; production design by Shane Valentino; costumes by Jennifer Johnson; produced by Leslie Urdang, Dean Vanech, Miranda de Pencier, Jay Van Hoy and Lars Knudsen; released by Focus Features. Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Ewan McGregor (Oliver), Christopher Plummer (Hal), Mélanie Laurent (Anna), Goran Visnjic (Andy), Kai Lennox (Elliot) and Mary Page Keller (Georgia).


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