I don't read many autobiographies. Too often they're little more than glossed-over PR vessels or 300 pages of self-absorbed navel-gazing as recounted to a very patient ghostwriter. So hard is the genre that in the past 15 years I've read only two great ones—Personal History by Katherine Graham and On Writing by Stephen King. The rest typically end up as half-finished coasters on my bedside table.
So it's a bit puzzling that the exact opposite seems to be true among directors who set out to write and film their life stories. Obviously the sample size is much smaller than with books, but the potential for a self-serving egotistical mess is also high when putting one's story on the screen. Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous and Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale are two relatively recent gems that avoided this trap, though audiences should keep in mind that film allows for a much higher degree of creative license. If James Frey makes up a stint in prison for his book, he ends up submitting to a public shaming on Oprah's couch. If Oliver Stone makes up a battle scene in Platoon, no one cares.
Mike Mills, who wrote and directed Beginners, has probably taken his share of liberties in telling his life story, but I couldn't care less because the film is so good. Plodding along at its own speed amid a jumbled timeline, Beginners is moving and sentimental, but never manipulative or corny. It reflects on the World War II generation from the perspective of a lost and longing Generation Xer, who dissects the "greatest generation" with love and honesty, all while telling the story of a dying father. And all while our narrator tries to stay steady on his own balance beam.
That father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), has just died when the film begins in 2003. His only son Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a 38-year-old graphic artist, is in the process of caring for his dad's effects. As narrated by Oliver, we jump back in time five years earlier, when, soon after his mother's death, Hal tells his son that he is gay. It's unclear how surprised the son is to hear the news—what he knows, and what we see in several flashbacks to his childhood, is that his parents' were unhappy for the majority of their 44-year marriage.
The terminal cancer diagnosis comes soon after Hal walks out of the closet, a boyfriend half his age in tow. And the film weaves in and out of the next several years as Hal attempts to make up for lost time while concurrently dealing with his failing health. Plumber, at age 81, is as sharp as ever playing an old man with a young man's enthusiasm. Observing from close range is Oliver, who has relationship issues of his own that come to a head in the months following his father's death. Oliver's reticence to fully commit to any woman is finally challenged by the arrival of Anna (Melanie Laurent), a French actress he meets at a Halloween party in the film's best scene, where he is dressed as Freud and she must communicate with note cards due to laryngitis.
Oliver's fear and sadness run counter to the freedom and energy exhibited by Hal in his final years, and the dichotomy of the two men is what holds Beginners together with such satisfying intensity and introspection. McGregor is brilliant as a lost but benevolent soul, tormented by the sadness he saw a child and afraid of ending up like his parents. Laurent is nicely understated as a thirty-something with similar issues. And through McGregor, Mills remains sympathetic to the plight of both his mother and father. Hal knew he was gay and kept it as hidden as possible. His mother hid her Jewish background and escaped Europe during World War II. She also, the film infers, knew Hal was gay but thought she could change him.
As Oliver says in the film's most poignant line during relationship struggles with Anna, "Our good fortune allowed us to feel a sadness our parents never had time for." With quick flashbacks and snapshots of the 1940s and '50s–some that we're used to seeing, others that we're not–Mills, over the course of 105 minutes, makes the contrast clear that our parents–and our grandparents–were not without demons and troubles. They just tended not to talk about them as much.
There's a personal touch to just about every scene here that make this more than the usual indie relationship drama. Beginners is a life story, told in pieces by someone who lived it, with loving honesty.
Beginners continues at the Wilma Theatre.