Review: Beginners
There is a fine-line between endearingly quirky and insufferably calculated oddness (some would call this twee, but I detest the word and will myself avoid it), and this is the line on which Beginners, the new film by Mike Mills, tight-rope walks. The film is saved, when it manages to be, by its roots in the autobiographical relationship between Mills and his father. It fails, when it does, by trying too hard to be cute, subtitling a Jack Russell Terrier, creating a meet-cute styled after a silent movie due to laryngitis, and having characters steal rollerskates from a rink to glide around Los Angeles.

The film follows Mills' alter-ego Oliver (Ewan McGregor, as likable as always) as he mourns the death of his father. Through flashbacks we get to see his experiences with his dad (played superbly by Christopher Plummer) in his final years, as the 75-year-old comes out and decides to make up for lost time by being as gay as possible (wrapping himself in rainbow scarves, dancing the night away at gay clubs, writing letters of support for gay politicians and passing out gay pride stickers) and taking a younger lover Andy (a soulful yet playful Goran Visnjic). And in the present, Oliver meets Anna (Melanie Laurent, acquitting herself well in English), an equally commitment-phobic actress with diametrically opposed father issues. As we watch Oliver's relationship with his father grow as his father withers with terminal lung cancer, we also see Oliver fall for, and try to tear himself away from Anna, who may just be perfect for him. Throughout the film, all of these people struggle to decide whether to become who they want to be or to be forever restrained by their fears about the consequences of their actions.

Beginners, like its characters, is troubled because it does not know exactly what to be. Is it a carefree light romantic comedy, a tragedy-laced remembrance of a father, a weighty drama about psychological baggage, or a dramedy about human need for companionship and adaptability to new situations? In parts, it is all of these things, and its impossible not to think it would be more successful if it would simply settle on a tone and stick with it. It is never as funny as it could be, and never quite as tragic as it might be, simply floating in the middle ground between tones and never settling enough to coalesce. Beginners feels like the beginning of something great. Unfortunately that promise of greatness is never fulfilled, and we are left with the desire for a film that doesn't share its characters' flaws, a film that is more self-assured and more confident about the message it imparts.

Grade: B-
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