Featuring Ewan McGregor and boasting a talking dog and quirky, tongue-in-cheek narration, “Beginners” seems like it would belong to that category of indie film too wrapped up in its own cleverness to say anything real. Fortunately for the audience, “Beginners” is in a category all its own.
After the death of his wife, Hal (Christopher Plummer) comes out of the closet, begins looking for love and dies of cancer five years later. The film focuses on his son Oliver (Ewan McGregor) who is haunted by his father’s final years. Painful flashbacks seem to be stalking him, infusing his life with sadness. And one night at a costume party, a young French actress named Anna (Melanie Laurent) recognizes the sadness in Oliver’s eyes. They promptly fall in love.
But this isn’t sweep- me-off-my-feet, no-holds-barred, “The Notebook” style love. This is real. They love with anxiety, with hesitation, with the fear that they will trip over their pasts and ruin what they have together. And in this grey atmosphere the talking dog, the clever monologues and the sarcastic quips, all seem necessary, like a coping mechanism offered up by the film.
What writer and director Mike Mills has done in “Beginners” is create a collection of raw scenes that creep up on you, that build up and layer into something beautiful, painful and honest. The ending, which is neither saccharine nor depressing, has the weight of a revelation. Mills uncovers all the ways in which our pasts can wrap around us, envelop us, and hold us hostage — all the ways in which it can prevent us from having the courage to begin.