Which sounds like a more interesting subject for a film: a man who's come out of the closet at age 75, or his 38-year-old heterosexual son pursuing a wistful romance with a cute French woman? Although it does devote time to both, Beginners bets on the latter, and that turns out to be a mistake.
Director Mike Mills based his narrative on his own life: He too had a father who embraced his homosexuality as a senior citizen. As Hal, Christopher Plummer turns in one of the year's strongest performances. There's no bitterness in it, although it's tinged with regret at a life spent hiding his true feelings. Hal may be dead when the movie starts, but Plummer tears into the role with such gusto that it's the rest of the cast that looks pale.
A complex flashback structure allows Mills to bring Hal back to life in the memories of his son Oliver (Ewan McGregor). Shortly after his wife's passing, Hal tells Oliver that he's gay. Embracing his options, the liberated widower finds a much younger boyfriend (Goran Visnjic), while the love-shy Oliver puts off romantic pursuit until he meets Anna (Mélanie Laurent) at a costume party. Oh, and Oliver communicates telepathically with his Jack Russell terrier.
That last bit signals a terminal cuteness that undermines the best of Beginners. If it happened once, as in the scene with a talking baboon in Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady, it might be an effective gag or a lyrical touch of magic realism, but Mills belabors the joke. His hero is a graphic designer who evidently thinks in scrapbooks, so he explains life in 2003 — or 1955, as the case may be — with cutout images from magazines. When Hal's lung cancer is the size of a quarter, Mills illustrates the concept by showing us an actual quarter. The director doesn't seem to understand that "twee" is not a compliment.
Beginners wants to say something profound about the difficulties of committing to love, but Hal and Oliver are the only characters who come across as full-fledged people. If you've seen many recent indie films, you'll recognize Anna as the dreaded Pixie Dream Girl archetype. Visnjic's neurotic boyfriend, on the other hand, is defined almost entirely by his paranoid conviction that everyone hates him because he's gay, hinting at past traumas without explaining them — a more brooding but scarcely more fleshed-out character.
It's a shame that Beginners loses its initial focus on Hal. Apart from a handful of ultra-niche indies, there are few films about what it's like to be gay and in one's 70s. Thus the segments of Beginners dealing with Hal's dilemmas are comparatively fresh, especially with Plummer's passionate performance guiding them. Paradoxically enough, it's the younger folks in Beginners who seem old hat.