Beginners begins with a premise ripe with dramatic possibilities: What if your father suddenly came out of the closet at age 75, immediately following your mother’s death? That really happened to writer-director Mike Mills (Thumbsucker), who’s cast Christopher Plummer as the dad and Ewan McGregor as, essentially, the filmmaker himself. Yet the two have surprisingly few scenes together, and the movie as a whole isn’t remotely the thorny but tender two-hander that convention would dictate. Instead, Mills has essentially made a freewheeling personal-essay film craftily disguised as a narrative, flitting back and forth in time with reckless abandon to examine the ways in which our personality and behavior is subtly warped by the decisions made by our parents, who were themselves prisoners of their environment.
That may sound fairly heavy, but Mills expertly balances the somberness with understated whimsy, successfully walking a thin tightrope between maudlin and twee. You wouldn’t think he could get away with some of this stuff—not only does McGregor’s character meet impossibly cute with a new girlfriend (Mélanie Laurent of Inglourious Basterds), who initially can’t speak due to laryngitis, but he also has subtitled conversations with his late father’s Jack Russell terrier. Even the film’s goofiest digressions are tinged with melancholy, however, and its fluid notion of time, memory and the weight of history proves to be deeply moving. Just not in the way you might have anticipated.