Thumbsucker director Mike Mills is upfront about the biographical origins of his second feature, about a man in his 70s who, after being widowed, tells his adult son he's gay. That's what happened to Mills, whose suddenly liberated father died five years later. So how does one reinvent a parental relationship after decades of polite, loving deception? And how might the protagonist of Beginners then be wary of any kind of relationship? Whom can you trust? Can you even trust yourself to be honest? All of which sounds like a navel-gazing puddle of indie mope-itude, but Mills fractures his story into so many elements—grief, graffiti, comedy, new romance, the challenge of designing CD booklets, and a dog whose thoughts are communicated via subtitles—that Beginners escapes solipsism into something tender and moving. As newly outed parent Christopher Plummer declares, "I don't want to be just theoretically gay—I want to do something about it." And he does, unlike his uptight, pensive son Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a graphic artist whose grieving passivity attracts the interest of a visiting French actress (Mélanie Laurent of Inglourious Basterds) at a party. Their burgeoning hotel-room relationship follows his father's death; and Beginners skips forward and back—with animation excursions, too—in the history of the Fields family. The film's fluid chronology eddies back on itself, making Oliver's dead parents a living part of his slow revival.
Tentative lovers Laurent and McGregor.
Opens at Harvard Exit, Fri., June 10. Rated R. 104 minutes. See our SIFF interview with Ewan McGregor and Mike Mills.