Coming out means starting over, whenever that self-realization should happen to occur. Mike Mills knows this firsthand, having watched his father reinvent his sexual identity at an advanced age. Such observations fuel his deeply poignant and disarmingly personal “Beginners,” which blends autobiographical remembrances of that never-too-late transformation with a fictionalized account of attempting to start a meaningful relationship of his own at 38. A major leap forward from “Thumbsucker,” the writer-director’s assured second narrative feature realizes the potential suggested by Mills’ musicvideo and conceptual art projects, sure to score with arthouse, hipster and fest auds (not just gay ones, either).
In a style that warrants comparisons to Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry and wife Miranda July (whose playful, intimacy-oriented sensibility can be detected throughout), Mills breaks from conventional story structure to present his father’s startling decision, at age 75, to declare his homosexuality and make up for lost time. Through voiceover and contextualizing slideshows, Mills’ alter ego, Oliver (Ewan McGregor) establishes the key dates in the story: the year his parents were born, married, died and, in his father’s case, declared his true nature.
After years on the sidelines, the old man, played by Christopher Plummer with liberating relish, suddenly emerges as a character in Oliver’s life, which had otherwise been dominated by his affectionate but vaguely unstable mother (winningly played by Mary Page Keller). Trying to catch up on lost time, Plummer’s Hal begins to socialize with other gay men, flying the gay-pride colors, hosting parties and dating a guy roughly his son’s age (Goran Visnjic, in a completely unglamorous perf) — all of which confound Oliver, who’s progressive enough to accept homosexuality but bewildered to find it lying unexpressed, until now, in someone so close.
While the director’s decision to cast McGregor as his onscreen surrogate might seem to imply vanity on Mills’ part, he encourages the actor to lay bare Mills’ own character flaws, which include such 21st-century luxuries as idle melancholy and fear of commitment. For Mills, his father’s butterfly-life emergence is rendered painfully ironic by two things: First, Hal’s bachelor son has never been able to sustain a relationship of his own. And second, the old man has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, which gives him only five years to enjoy his newfound freedom. Mills divides the narrative along three parallel tracks, with Oliver dutifully caring for his strong-willed father in the most affecting of these threads.
Though his mother also suffered a slow decline into frailty, he omits that painful chapter in favor of childhood memories that formed his melancholy way of looking at the world (reflected in a downer art project called “The History of Sadness,” for which Oliver finds no takers). But most of the film unfolds in the present, after Hal’s death, as a chance encounter at a Halloween party, where Oliver meets an alluring French actress (“Inglourious Basterds'” Melanie Laurent, effortlessly natural) rendered silent by laryngitis.
In another director’s hands, this might have all come across as suffocatingly twee, from this semi-contrived meet-cute to the many self-conscious details presented throughout (including frequent glimpses of the director’s own artwork and a Jack Russell terrier who communicates via subtitles). But Mills isn’t attempting to manipulate auds here; rather, he lays himself bare, offering an open-book glimpse into the thorny nature of contemporary relationships, which enjoy a certain luxury of complexity unshared by earlier generations. “Our good fortune allowed us to feel a sadness our parents didn’t have time for,” Oliver notes in voiceover.
To whatever extent the film drags or doubles back on itself, “Beginners” merely feels stronger and more honest for it, like the cinematic equivalent of Dave Eggers’ “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.” Rarely do you find such self-plunging material beyond the realm of documentary or far-fringe museum fare, and despite his background in that arena, Mills sheds all preciosity in service of genuinely revealing introspection. “Beginners” also differs from comparable LGBT stories, since it comes from the perspective of a son still wrestling with his father’s enigmatic decisions, rather than the angle of a newly empowered filmmaker trying to validate his own life choices.