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Sometimes a film takes a while to hit you. Sometimes, until it does, you think less of it. For this viewer, that’s what happened with the latest from writer-director and graphic artist Mike Mills. Initially, to be honest, I was lukewarm. The central conceit seemed a bit too cute for its own good, as LA designer Oliver (Ewan McGregor) tries to get his head round the fact that his dear old dad, Hal (Christopher Plummer), has reacted to becoming a widower by confessing he was gay all along and committing heartily to a new out-and-proud lifestyle.

The notion his parents were somehow living a lie does little for Oliver’s hesitance in forming meaningful relationships, even when he finds himself falling for French actress Anna (Mélanie Laurent). So, the smart, sensitive, cool-yet-sad white guy learns to love thanks to the gamine power of the magic Gallic pixie girl? Cliché alert! Best not to let flaws in one aspect of a film blind you to strengths elsewhere, but this grating would-be romance definitely got my goat.

Still, it was also clear that ‘Beginners’ wasn’t just another resistably eager-to-please indie quirkfest. For one thing, Cosmo, the superstar Jack Russell who communicates with owner Oliver via astute subtitled thoughts, almost stole the movie, no mean feat when Plummer’s in such warmly generous form as the elderly father finding fulfilment anew in his mid-seventies.

Moreover, there was something so wilfully contrary about the whole thing it obviously wasn’t just flung together, what with the complex three-way timeline, the interjection of documentary material looking at the pressures of sexual conformity in the 1950s, even the bittersweet scenes where Oliver’s vulnerability affects his album sleeve commissions.

Given that Mills himself has designed artwork for Air, Sonic Youth, The Beastie Boys and others, was there some autobiographical element here? I checked. There was. I discovered what readers of last week’s Mike Mills interview in Time Out will know already: the outline of the film isn’t some too-cute conceit but the real story of Mills and his museum-curator father.

Such background info shouldn’t change one’s assessment of a film, but it helped things fall into place. What seemed like a contrary jumble was evidently driven by the filmmaker’s own profound emotional needs. Awkward, yes, but also touchingly authentic. Sure, the love story is still on the twee side, but it’s part of a deeper, wider truth about how some of us long so deeply for human connection that the fear of things not working out drives us to self-sabotage. That’s a piercing insight to build a movie around, especially when there’s a delicate, impeccably shaped performance from McGregor to put flesh on it. Ultimately, then, a film that’s unusual and utterly itself won me over. It stays with you and, whatever its flaws, there’s something rare and cherishable in that.

By: Trevor Johnston


Release details

Rated: 15
Release date: Friday July 22 2011
Duration: 105 mins

Cast and crew

Director: Mike Mills
Screenwriter: Mike Mills
Cast: Christopher Plummer
Melanie Laurent
Ewan McGregor

Average User Rating

3.5 / 5

Rating Breakdown

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I agree with most of the review and comments. Decent film somewhat spoilt by the boring scenes of the McGregor and Laurent romance. The french girlfriend character lacked any depth and her 'gallic charm' was just irritating. The rest of the film was good and the dog was a star.

david glowacki

An interesting and vague film..The ensemble acting is terrific and Melanie Laurent is stunningly beautiful..What is the film about?? Well it is not clear..Bereavement,his mother has passed away and his Father has terminal cancer..The son is left empty and sad and his life has no energised direction.He meets the gorgeous Laurent,but she has an inherent problem of wandering loneliness.They start a relationship,but both can't fully overcome their sadness..It is this pervasive sadness that permeates the entire film and what gives it it essentially attractiveness to the viewer.The daft part is that the leads father comes out gay at age 75.He has his cancer and tries to find last minute happiness with his lover..It's awkward and would have been more credible if he had found another woman and happiness. The film meanders beautifully through the 3 main characters emotional states..Laurent exudes a lot of erotic and romantic beauty in a way that is rather rare in today's hardboiled world..It is not a perfect film as it is a bit too self conscious and at times lacks direction,but a decent film nevertheless


A tender and thoughtful meditation on mortality, solipsism, loss, memory, empathy... with some strong performances, particularly from McGregor and Plummer. It's worth noting that; whilst most characters are portrayed sympathetically, and with affection, they are all projections of the central character's (McGregor) inner narrative as he struggles to gain perspective on his life and relationships. Hence the gay guys are always partying and letting off fireworks, his elderly father always has a 'gay' twinkle in his eye (even on his deathbed) and the anthropomorphic dog.. It's just how he recalls and relates to them. He is, after all, a professional caricaturist; it's how he's wired. Maybe the girl's solely imaginary? (An absent projection of a romantic ideal?). I do hope so. Slightly too long (by 20mins) but a classy and thought provoking piece that's still playing on my thoughts.


A fine film, with first rate acting. There was 1 thing which took me a little by surprise in this film - that it had a very sharp and wise sense of humour. The story, on the surface, is very grim and doom laden. However, the script-writer and director make it a very fun watch. The story of the relationships, both gay and straight, are very well drawn.

chris jackson

boring and disappointing , i hoped there would be more abt the father and his gay life which was interesting bit

Phil Ince

Not what I expected, at all. The trailer doesn't (can't do it) justice. From that I'd expected something twee and kooky whereas it has several, solid, proper beating hearts within it. The central story thread is the McGregor/Laurent romance but there's a central theme about the individual consequences for the father, his wife and son over many years of intolerance of sexuality. I wasn't so convinced by the part for/of Laurent but McGregor/Plummer are very good indeed but the film almost goes to Mary Page Keller (why isn't she better known?) as the misguided/loving wife and mother. She's perfect. I wish the McGregor romance had developed less intensely a little earlier - something about the hotel base gives it an unnecessarily claustrophobic air from the start that stifles credulity. A very good film that - honest - made me laugh and cry.