“They f** you up, your mum and dad” appears to be the underlying message of Mike Mills’ Beginners, a tragicomedy that also suggests the parents aren’t entirely to blame. Through the intimate portrayal of two love stories emerges a bigger picture of society’s expectations, a reminder of the consequences of repressed homosexuality.
Mills, a graphic designer in his other life, paints, rather than points, a finger. He’s an inventive storyteller, his distinctive visual voice affording his characters silence if they require it, communicating his theme through the use of motifs, twee advertising imagery, and metaphor (in one scene Ewan McGregor’s Oliver goes to a dress-up party as Sigmund Freud). Meanwhile, Oliver’s inner turmoil is shown via conversations with his dad’s dog, and through his increasingly depressive drawings.
Like his irreverent film Thumbsucker, Mills tackles dark territory but never strays too far into melancholy. That’s also thanks to a wonderfully charming cast playing offbeat, damaged characters. McGregor is sensitive and restrained, as is Melanie Laurent as the vulnerable Anna, Christopher Plummer as a newly-outed man discovering life at 75, and Mary Page Keller as Oliver’s bored and lonely mother, prone to eccentric public displays. One quibble: the central love story’s climax is underdeveloped, and plot-wise, there are few surprises.
But Beginners is still a heartfelt and whimsical gem.