A deeply poignant and disarmingly personal second feature from writer-director Mike Mills.

Oliver - Ewan McGregor Hal - Christopher Plummer Anna - Melanie Laurent Andy - Goran Visnjic Elliot - Kai Lennox Georgia - Mary Page Keller Young Oliver - Keegan Boos

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.


Production: An Olympus Pictures presentation in association with Parts & Labor. (International sales: UTA, Los Angeles.) Produced by Leslie Urdang, Dean Vanech, Miranda De Pencier, Jay Van Hoy, Lars Knudsen. Executive producer, Joan Scheckel. Co-producers, Geoff Linville, Fran Giblin. Directed, written by Mike Mills.

Crew: Camera (color), Kasper Tuxen; editor, Olivier Bugge Coutte; music, Roger Neill, David Palmer, Brian Reitzell; music supervisor, Robin Urdang; production designer, Shane Valentino; set decorator, Coryander Friend; costume designer, Jennifer Johnson; sound, Susumu Tokunow; sound designer/re-recording mixer, Leslie Shatz; stunt coordinator, Nash Edgerton; visual effects, Oddball Animation, Wes Ball, Justin Barber, Brad Hawkins, Ryland Jones; assistant director, Rod Smith; casting, Courtney Bright, Nicole Daniels. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 11, 2010. Running time: 105 MIN.

Cast: Oliver - Ewan McGregor Hal - Christopher Plummer Anna - Melanie Laurent Andy - Goran Visnjic Elliot - Kai Lennox Georgia - Mary Page Keller Young Oliver - Keegan Boos

More Scene

  • Sir Elton John, David Furnish. Sir

    New Elton John AIDS Foundation Gala to be Held in the South of France

    Elton John and David Furnish are launching a new gala for the Elton John AIDS Foundation. The two will host the inaugural A Midsummer Party benefit on July 24 in the south of France at the Johnny Pigozzi’s private estate, Villa Dorane, in Cap d’Antibes. A cocktail reception will be followed by dinner, a live [...]

  • Dwayne Johnson Idris Elba

    Dwayne Johnson: Idris Elba Nixed 'Black James Bond' Joke in 'Hobbs & Shaw'

    In the “Fast & Furious Presents Hobbs & Shaw,” the movie’s villain Brixton, played by Idris Elba, spreads his arms out wide and declares “I’m black Superman.” It turns out that might not have been the original line. Dwayne Johnson tells Variety that Elba was first asked to proclaim he’s “black James Bond,” but the [...]

  • Matteo BocelliAmerican Icon Awards Gala, Inside,

    Top Music Manager Calls Out American Icon Awards for Failing to Pay Talent

    The centuries-old adage no good deed goes unpunished is a common refrain for star music manager Scott Rodger of late. Rodger, who represents Paul McCartney and Andrea Bocelli at Maverick, says his client Matteo Bocelli, the son of the opera star, was stiffed out of promised expense reimbursement by the American Icon Awards. The event, [...]

  • Mary Bailey Steve D'Angelo, Jim Belushi

    Cannabis Industry Tackles Justice Reform With 'Last Prisoner Project'

    Jim Belushi is standing two feet away in the backyard of his spacious Brentwood home, honking a harp like he’s a Blues Brother back in sweet home Chicago accompanied by noted reggae band Rebelution’s Eric Rachmany and Kyle Ahern, who provide a 12-bar shuffle. There’s the sweet smell of skunk – and success — hanging [...]

  • Dwayne Wade holds up the legend

    Dwyane Wade, Megan Rapinoe Win Big at 2019 Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Sports Awards

    The 2019 Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Sports Awards was filled with incredible athletes, inspiring moments and — of course — a massive amount of slime. “I love the kids. I love the slime. I loved the games. I love seeing celebrities and athletes like become kids again. And it’s like my favorite thing,” Michael Strahan told [...]

  • Dave Bautista and Kumail Nanjiani

    Dave Bautista Talks Representation in Hollywood and Defying Stereotypes with 'Stuber'

    Dave Bautista and Kumail Nanjiani make an unlikely duo in “Stuber,” an R-rated comedy about a police officer and his Uber driver. But the two connected over the rare chance to star in the film as actors of Asian descent (Baustia is half-Filipino and Nanjiani is Pakistani). “I’ve been stereotyped for a couple different reasons [...]

  • Skin

    How Jamie Bell Transformed Into a Neo-Nazi for 'Skin'

    Anyone who still associates British actor Jamie Bell with his breakout role as a young boy who dreams of becoming a ballet dancer will quickly forget all about “Billy Elliot” after seeing “Skin,” which screened at ArcLight Hollywood on Thursday night. “I was shocked,” the film’s writer-director, Guy Nattiv, told Variety of his leading man’s [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content