Is it too late to start again? Not according to this whimsical comedy drama inspired by indie filmmaker Mike Mills's own life. Ewan McGregor stars as Oliver, a lonely artist who quietly absorbs the impact when his father (Christopher Plummer) comes out of the closet at 75, prompting him to re-evaluate his own love life. Prior to this, Oliver can only commit to being miserable so it's just as well that he has Arthur the dog to brighten the mood with cheekily subtitled pearls of wisdom. It may seem a little too quirky at times, but the film does speak eloquently to a very human malaise.
Flitting back and forth in time, Mills follows Oliver as he bears witness to his dad's daring last stand as an openly gay OAP (astutely played by Plummer) in the face of terminal cancer, and after his death, when he meets self-confessed "strange girl" Anna (Melanie Laurent). There are flashbacks to childhood as well, which is spent largely in the company of his equally kooky mum (Mary Page Keller), apparently craving the attention that her hubbie won't give her. Oliver soaks up the heartbreak and channels it through his artwork for a CD, cutely titled The History of Sadness.
Mills (who also dealt with arrested development in Thumbsucker) inter-cuts these comic sketches with snapshots of recent history to bookmark stages in Oliver's own life while McGregor muses in deadpan voiceover (and finally masters the LA drawl). Meanwhile, outside of his head, Dad at last finds love with a much younger man (a foppish Goran Visnjic of ER) creating a bizarrely funny picture of togetherness. And yet, Dad's honesty means that Oliver is finally beginning to relate. This echoes his growing intimacy with Anna, but he doubts her at first, still scarred by Dad's deception in childhood, papered on the wall with a quote from The Velveteen Rabbit: "What is REAL?"
Oliver is clearly emotionally stunted, but you could forgive him for doubting whether Anna is for real because she is, for one thing, an actress and apparently made up of every cliché ever depicted in film about French women. She is sultry yet morose, straight-talking yet enigmatic, beautiful yet broken inside, and all of it captured in ethereal flashes by Mills' camera. The only thing missing is a designer perfume for her to roll about in the sheets with. She is a fantasy, but that's partly the point: Oliver is afraid to accept the idea that this dream could last. Anna is just as much haunted by her own past failures, so it's inevitable that they push each other away.
It's left to Arthur the Jack Russell to sum up the problem with a perfect symmetry of comedy and truth: "We knew it wouldn't work, even before we met her." Ironically, these surreal twists offer the most clarity when Oliver strays into a fog, trying to make sense of his feelings. Thankfully, Mills defies the sitcom premise with a fluent grasp of the intangible, but intellect overtakes emotion and as Oliver plods on, less comedy means fewer insights. Thankfully, McGregor's spark shines through the encroaching darkness and Plummer lends much-needed dignity to his role, but Dad and Anna never seem fully realised. Despite his cowardice, Oliver is the backbone of the film, giving in to hope as the end draws near to cleverly mark a new beginning.
Watch the Beginners trailer below: