From writer/director Mike Mills ("Thumbsucker"), "Beginners" brings us possibly the most honest screen romance you'll see this year. Ewan McGregor plays Oliver, a struggling artist, and Mélanie Laurent plays Anna, a French actress living out of a hotel room. Together they are a wonderful thing creating effortless chemistry out of damaged and completely humane characters. Their first meeting at a Halloween party is charming and understated as Anna has laryngitis and can't talk. Throughout the evening she communicates with Oscar by writing on a notepad. Their growing relationship works on the same quirkiness but, much like the movie itself, with an added layer of introspective contemplation asking the question what makes people truly happy.
One of the great pleasures of "Beginners" is the way it is simply watching people find their way to happiness, and you end up wanting them to succeed -- and they do. The screenplay skips back and forth through time like a swift, playful dance. Oscar just found out two life-changing things about his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer). He is terminally ill with cancer and has been gay his entire life including his 44-year-long marriage with Oscar's mother. "I don't want to just be theoretically gay," Hal tells his son. "I want to do something about it." And he does. All the while Oscar is caring for his father, he's getting involved in the gay community and dating a younger man. The film divides its time between this and after Hal passes away four months later when Oscar is seeing Anna. There are also further flashbacks showing Oscar's relationship with his overly eccentric mother who's crying out for attention while her husband is absent from their lives. This non-chronology reveals wholesomely rounded characters conveyed with sympathy and feeling.
Christopher Plummer's performance is getting award acknowledgement, and it's no wonder. As a late blooming gay man, Plummer allows his character to radiate his newly discovered open sexuality. You watch his performance knowing absolutely that Hal is gay but without being able to specifically place how exactly you can tell. It's a testament to the ability of the actor. And both Laurent and McGregor have nuanced performances to match as a couple afraid of their own commitment.
You know a writer/director has complete control over the tone and mood of his film and knows exactly at every step what he wants it to be when he can, without a hitch, include a talking dog and make it fit in seamlessly. The dog, Arthur, used to be Hal's and now under the ownership of Oscar he can never be left alone. Whenever Oscar leaves the house, Arthur whimpers and howls, so Oscar is forced to bring him wherever he goes -- a constant reminder of his father.
The soul of the movie lies in the downright poetic voiceovers from Oscar which contain choice videos and images. He describes what things were like in certain years. The year Oscar's mother was born, the year his father discovered he was gay, and 2003, when he and Anna are dating. Here's a sweet and intelligent movie with a tough heart, and the title "Beginners" works gorgeously. In order to have a new beginning, you have to let other beginnings in your life have their definitive close. Only then can you move on.