Love takes many forms in Mike Mills' Beginners. The director's latest explores relationships between men and women, parents and children, and people and animals. Combine that with a time-jumping, non-linear narrative structure, and you have the ingredients for something completely contrived and scatter shot. However, Mills' film, his first feature since 2005's Thumbsucker, never feels out of balance. Instead, it's a sincere, honest, and touching film about different types of beginnings in life.
After a brief, near-silent intro, Mills' semi-autobiographical film begins with Oliver (Ewan McGregor) telling us that after his mother passed away, his father (Christopher Plummer) decided to come out. From there, the story jumps from Oliver dealing with his father's increasing immersion into the gay community (and subsequent relationship), his father's declining health, Oliver's relationship with his mother as a child, and Oliver's romance with Anna (Melanie Laurent).
All of these relationships, along with Oliver's bonding with his father's dog (is there an award for best performance by an animal?), are handled with an elegant simplicity, one that allows for moments of laugh out loud humor and heartfelt emotion. In drawing from his own experiences, Mills has created a story that, despite its unique details, rings true in its depictions of love and loss. McGregor is sweet and vulnerable as Oliver, a man dealing not only with a profound revelation, but also with his first good relationship in years. Plummer and Laurent, along with Mary Keller as Oliver's mother, turn in lovely supporting turns as well. Plummer and Keller, who never share the screen together, speak volumes as parents who struggle to connect with each other, while Laurent is quirky (but not overly so) and charming as Oliver's love interest. She's not reduced to a perfect object of male desire, as is often the case in similar films, and Mills' grounded writing for the role gives Laurent more room to perform, and for her chemistry with McGregor to blossom.
And as much territory as it covers over 100 minutes, Beginners never feels as though it's stretching itself thin. Mills utilizes each story thread elegantly, and the jumps between and among various points in time are simple and effective. By not following a straight-forward path, Mills is able to keep us up in the air as to what will come next, without undermining the film's most poignant moments, which are beautifully understated. Rather than strain for moments of heart or humor, Beginners unfolds with an ease that makes the proceedings feel effortless and lived-in. This is a film about beginners, but Mills and his cast prove themselves to be old pros, working together to create a beautifully emotional film, one that rises above its extremely indie look (and budget) to become something memorable, and something special.