(Mike Mills, 2011)
Yes, it's yet another in a long line of American Indie quirkfests, by a director married to Quirk-Queen Miranda July and best known as a graphic artist. Yes, it features a (subtitled) talking dog, and wryly narrated photo-collages and felt-tip doodles being doodled and a meet-cute between a sweetly sadsack hipster protagonist and an idealised French beauty at a fancy dress party. Yes, we also see them enjoying (ironic, archly self aware) graffitti together and rollerskating through a hotel lobby and racing piggyback through woods and enacting sundry other charming though near-generic 'new love in the movies' moments together.
And yes, still Beginners is funny and moving and full of truth and warmth and pain.
Ewan McGregor plays Mills' own character, basically, in what is very obviously auto-biographical material. A few months after the death of his father (Christopher Plummer) he meets and falls for Anna (Melanie Laurent) a French actress, and has to work through his own relationship issues and his parents marriage in order to be happy. His gay father only came out after his mothers death and enjoyed four years of gay life before his own death, and Mills considers the meaning and weight of this through his photo-collages, contesting the '00s with the 1930s and '50s, commenting on his generation feeling a "sadness our parents were too busy for".
The film Beginners most reminded me of was Terrence Malick's Tree of Life. Both examine a man emotionally blocked by his relationship with two radically different parents and both use experimental narrative techniques to widen their focus thematically.
Mills' film is less cosmic in its ambition and more accessible, with a consistently warm and charmingly funny sensibility running throughout. He has an inventive comic mind - little details snap with amusing detail - and a fine eye; here is a great Los Angeles film which, like a couple of other recent indie productions (500 Days of Summer, In Search of a Midnight Kiss, Greenberg), takes care to present a different, less iconic and recognisable side of that City.
But it is the human drama that makes the film work so well, and it is nicely written with a great ear for people trying to protect but also open themselves, and beautifully acted. Plummer has the most dazzling role and is excellent, giddy at his newfound liberation, in jolly denial at his unfair illness, then resigned and dignified in death. McGregor, who can disappear in a bland role, here makes his hero sympathetic and likeable enough that we believe the stunning, believably complex Laurent might fall for him. Of course, the dog outacts them all.
Together they ensure that, when it needs to, the pain and loss of the story bleeds through the visual style and the offbeat wit to occupy centre screen, and when it does, it feels real and recognisably human. All of which makes Beginners much more than just another hipster-bait Indie American comedy drama.