Should you need motivation to make a life change and visit the great god Google for guiding thoughts on new starts, you’ll find pithy aphorisms aplenty.
They range from the witty (Mae West’s “You’re never too old to become younger”) to the philosophical (Seneca’s “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end”).
Writer/director Mike Mills’ “Beginners,” a sweet if sometimes irritatingly twee film playing exclusively at AMC Quail Springs Mall 24, encompasses that same range. It doesn’t always succeed in reaching Senecan heights of universal truths, but a strong performance by Christopher Plummer (“Priest”) and a moving concept make it worth seeing, despite its flaws.
The story is a fictional version of what happened to Mills after his mother died and his 70-something father came out. An honorable man, he remained true to his wife of about 40 years at the price of being untrue to himself. Whether that honor was a good thing, the film leaves ambiguous, as would life. Known only in flashbacks, the mother character is charming and sympathetic, but, in her complicity, not particularly likable.
I heard Mills (“Thumbsucker”) in an NPR interview recount that his father opened a conversation with something like, “I’m going to throw you a ball, and I hope you will catch it.” Mills told the interviewer that he panicked, thinking his dad was going to ask to move in with him. The film finds the humor and pathos in the parent announcing his homosexuality to his 30-something son, replacing the standard, coming-out trope of the fearful teen facing parents.
The son, Oliver (Ewan McGregor, “The Ghost Writer”), is a graphic artist who can’t commit to a relationship. Given his parents’ marital model, best described as traditional ’50s “Ozzie & Harriet” exterior with a “Twilight Zone” of lies interior, it’s no wonder. Oliver meets his love interest, Anna (Mélanie Laurent, “Inglourious Basterds”), also not much of a one for commitment, at a costume party.
He’s dressed as Freud, which seems heavy-handed, but plays as a sort of ironic self-assessment. (FYI, however, it was Carl Jung, Freud’s follower who became an acrimonious defector, who said something much more relevant to Oliver’s story: “What usually has the strongest psychic effect on the child is the life which the parents have not lived.”) The film begins at the universal ending, the death of Hal (Plummer), who, months after coming out, finds he has terminal cancer. His emergence from the darkness of the closet into the light of authenticity ends with a too-rapid return to darkness. Surrounded by friends and an unfaithful but kind lover, played appealingly by Goran Visnjic (TV’s “ER”), Hal doesn’t exactly rage against the dying of the light, but goes boisterously into it, rather than gentle.
Plummer’s performance makes the poignancy of the film real, rather than manufactured. McGregor is fine, but Oliver’s story is less interesting, despite being the film’s primary concern.
“Beginners” is not a great film, but it is a moving one. And with 100-degree temperatures outside, seeing it will be cool in more ways than one.