Photo: Alliance Films

BY: Manori Ravindran

Starring Ewan McGregor, Mélanie Laurent, Christopher Plummer. Directed by Mike Mills. 105 minutes. R.

“People like us: half of them think things will never work out, the other half believes in magic.” So says Anna, a charming French woman Ewan McGregor’s Oliver falls in love with in Beginners. In a way, these two categories of people are exactly the kinds we meet in Mike Mills’s semi-autobiographical film about a man coming to terms with life and death.

Let’s begin with the magic. Beginners starts at the end. Oliver’s father Hal (Christopher Plummer) has just passed away, and he’s inherited an astute Jack Russell Terrier who won’t leave his side. Sleepwalking through his job and putting life on mute, it’s a relief when he meets Anna (Mélanie Laurent) at a costume party. The actress has a bad case of laryngitis and doesn’t say a word the entire evening. But there’s a connection between the two, and soon they’re roller-skating in the halls of her hotel and vandalizing billboards together. Set to smooth jazz crackling in the background, it’s a beautiful thing to watch this couple fall in love.

But, as Anna points out, there are people who think things will never work out, and in their relationship, that’s Oliver, who hums and haws his way through their courtship. But can you blame him? Prior to meeting Anna, his father passed away after battling cancer, and all after coming out as gay and finding love with a fun-loving man half his age. As Oliver gets involved with Anna, we learn more about his relationship with his father, the things they taught each other during Hal’s illness and why Oliver can’t seem to hold on to a good thing.

Beginners, a darling of the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival, is aptly named. Both father and son are, after all, beginners: Hal renewing his life after revealing his sexuality and Oliver learning to play for keeps with love. But, poetry aside, Mills’s film, penned by the director just five months after his 75-year-old father came out, doesn’t delve much deeper than that.

The strongest partnership is that between Hal and Oliver. There’s a natural chemistry between Plummer and McGregor that makes their roles believable: the former bringing a light heartedness to the film that balances the latter’s more serious character. The scene where Hal returns from a gay nightclub and asks Oliver what kind of music is characterized by “nn-tss, nn-tss, nn-tss” (house, of course) is as loveable as they come. It’s these father-son interactions that will resonate with audiences, many of whom can likely relate to aspects of their relationship.

What stifles the film is Oliver’s romance with Anna, which is awfully predictable and not altogether convincing. McGregor’s brand of Sunday morning charm never quite syncs with Laurent’s wide-eyed quirky, and considering half the film follows the relationship, their back and forth becomes tiresome after a while.

Beginners is perhaps best described as a sweet, sentimental and deeply personal film made by a director who wanted to share a unique relationship with the world. It’s a touching effort that reveals ubiquitous truths about most people’s bonds with parents and lovers, but as far as storytelling goes, Beginners is heavy in reality, and sparse in magic. B

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