The brand new and sadly brief relationship between a grown man and his terminally ill, freshly un-closeted septuagenarian father beats at the core of “Beginners,” the playful and autobiographical new indie from writer/director Mike Mills. But it’s not the dad’s death that makes the film such a terribly tender piece of work. What really grabs you is the son’s commendably curious, broad-minded, cross-generational efforts to understand the father he no longer recognizes — to try his best to embrace the changes as windows into familial, cultural and personal discovery.
Mills’s own father came out as a gay man at 75, then died five years later. In this loving tribute, the filmmaker parlays his experiences into the tale of Oliver (Ewan McGregor) and Hal (Christopher Plummer), whose upended association is explored via a beautifully broken narrative and image-laden narration that serves as Mills’s bittersweet requiem. A troubled artist, Oliver (which is to say Mills) leafs through a mental scrapbook that flashes before us onscreen. It’s his attempt to retrace steps and fill in gaps that have left him withdrawn and incomplete, and it contrasts his interactions with Hal whom, cautiously dazzled, he often regards like a wildfire.
Mills claims his dad was “drunk on life” in those final years, and therein lies the film’s tone, which extends from Plummer’s effervescent performance on through to the kooky, silent-film romance Oliver sparks with Anna (Mélanie Laurent), who’s more than a bit like his late mother (one of many Freudian elements). Pushy quirk does rear its nagging head (in general, subtitled pet speech is a no-no), and Oliver’s and Anna’s all-is-lost climax feels frantically concocted. But, thanks to his taste level and personally-invested sincerity, Mills achieves something hip and timeless, both with story and aesthetics.
The greatest passage, which could have been disastrous, sees Oliver show and explain the colors of the pride flag, then invoke lines from “The Velveteen Rabbit.” Gently speaking volumes, the lines express that realness comes with age and wear, and that “real is only ugly to those who don’t understand.”
Three-and-a-half reels out of four
Opens Friday at the Ritz Five
“Hangover” star Ed Helms continues to excel at playing a winsome Everyman in “Cedar Rapids,” a clever Middle-America comedy about a sheltered insurance salesman who grows a spine after trekking to a regional weekend convention. Co-starring as fellow 40-something malcontents are Anne Heche, Isiah Whitlock Jr. and John C. Reilly, who’s never been funnier. SPR
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