At first glance, Mike Mills's semiautobiographical feature appears so fragile, you suspect the slightest touch would shatter it into a million pieces. Though it threatens to become a twee drama-romance cast from the Sundance-derivatives mold (a dog that talks through subtitles! statically precious Wes Anderson compositions!), this ultimately bracing indie quickly reveals more unique and tender shades. Soft-spoken graphic designer Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is dealing with the death of his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), who's recently succumbed to cancer. We meet Oliver in the present, as he's cleaning out Dad's home—packing books into boxes, gazing wistfully at bric-a-brac and uprooting Hal's beloved (and caption-prone) Jack Russell terrier.
Soon enough, the memories flood in, most prominently the time, five years prior, when 75-year-old Hal told his son he was gay. Beginners interweaves these two timelines, along with a few scenes from Oliver's childhood, into a minor-key ode to love and loss. This is Mills's own story filtered through fiction (his father came out and passed away in similar fashion), and he maintains a distinctively sure hand throughout. The film's most mannered sequences come first—especially cringeworthy is a party-night meet-cute between Oliver, dressed as Sigmund Freud, and his soon-to-be-girlfriend, Anna (Melanie Laurent)—almost as if Mills needed to get the quirk out of his system.
From there, things improve immeasurably: McGregor and Laurent have a wonderful rapport (their on-again, off-again relationship suggests Punch-Drunk Love minus the Adam Sandler psychosis). And Plummer is revelatory as Hal—dignified without being sexless or saintly, never sinking into straight-actor-playing-queer clich. The smile he flashes when entering a Los Angeles gay club for the first time is so blissful yet complicated that it breaks your heart. And when that cancer diagnosis finally comes, Mills keeps all the easy sops and sentiments at bay. That deceptively delicate surface masks a movie with an unflinchingly tough heart.—Keith Uhlich