Beginners review

Thumbsucker director Mike Mills draws deep from the well of personal experience in his overdue third feature, a wry, moving and seriously funny look at how one father’s second lease of life encourages his son to have his own.

Inspired by his dad’s “coming out” at 75 and his death from cancer five short years later, Beginners has a cutesy vibe that sometimes works against its thoughtful agenda. But mostly, this is a beautifully judged and genuinely affecting exploration of life’s constant capacity to surprise.

Ewan McGregor plays Oliver, a graphic artist whose inability to keep a girlfriend is put into sharp relief by his recently widowed pop’s announcement he’s batting for the other team.

Carping the diem like there’s no tomorrow, Hal (Christopher Plummer) dates a much younger man (Goran Visnjic), but when the old man contracts cancer, Oliver is left nursing his grief with only Hal’s Jack Russell for company.

That changes when a fancy dress party hurls him into the offbeat orbit of actress Anna (Mélanie Laurent), brimming with gamine Amélie charm. Their first encounter – he dressed as Freud, her suffering from laryngitis – could be a Woody Allen skit, like the chatty subtitles conveying the aforementioned pooch’s perspective.

But by oscillating between events before and after Hal’s illness, Mills allows one half of his story to subtly shape the other in a way that makes for a more coherent and rewarding tale than its disparate elements suggest.

Plummer gives such a genial and engaging performance it could conceivably win him the accolades The Last Station didn’t. Yet even this wily old timer is outshone by Cosmo, a terrier who trots away with every scene he’s in.

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