The word "twee" aptly describes the tone of writer-director Mike Mills' "Beginners," but it's only half the story. A domestic dramedy that also puts an unexpected spin on the romantic comedy, this genre-bender gives Christopher Plummer a plum role that could well bring him Oscar attention.
As its title implies, "Beginners" is a tale of two late bloomers: neurotic illustrator Oliver (Ewan McGregor) and his father, Hal (Plummer), a retired art restorer who, at 75, announced that he was gay. The past tense applies because the film's opening scene finds Oliver in mourning for Hal, who died of cancer four years after his coming out. Scenes about Hal's venturesome new life, his illness and Oliver's attempts to cope with both unfold in flashback, as do scenes of Oliver's childhood during the 44-year marriage of Hal and his curiously accepting wife, Georgia (Mary Page Keller).
Meanwhile, in the present, a grieving Oliver fearfully, tentatively embarks on a relationship with French-born actress Anna (Melanie Laurent). "It's embarrassing," he grumbles. "I'm 38 and falling for a girl again. It's like I lost the instructions or never had them."
The picture insistently juxtaposes Oliver's toe-dipping with Hal's cannonball, which continues to send ripples through Oliver's life. "I don't want to just be theoretically gay," Hal says. "I want to do something about it."
Plummer hits all the right notes in the highs of liberation and discovery, and the death-sentence low that Hal cannot entirely deny but refuses to wallow in. McGregor's finely tuned sensitivity and understatement provide the underpinning to both the comedy and drama: He's a stalwart listener and a master reactor. Adding a frisson of credibility to the story is that Mills essentially lived it. Himself an illustrator turned filmmaker, Mills went through the same life-and-death issues with his father.
As in Mills' undervalued debut "Thumbsucker," "Beginners" exploits Mills' illustrative instincts and quirky sensibility. Here's where the "twee" comes in: DIY-style scene transitions and deadpan montages contrasting Hal's cultural context of the 1950s with Oliver's next-generational experience; the young lovers' "meet cute," made absurd by Halloween costumes and Anna's laryngitis; scenes of extra-rink roller-skating and artsy-fartsy "tagging"; and Oliver's Jack Russell terrier Arthur, inherited from Dad. The Snoopy to Oliver's defeatist Charlie Brown, Arthur speaks to his master in subtitled telepathy.
There's genuine poignancy in Oliver's struggles to accept life on its own terms, and his father's willfully relaxed last-chance gusto (though Anna is given her own daddy issues, she's perhaps necessarily underdeveloped). Mills' confidently free narrative style has an appealing gentleness, and since he effectively cuts the whimsy with melancholy, "Beginners" gets a clean bill of health: Its case of the cutes isn't terminal.