The human condition is just not easily parsed.
Beginners will hold your attention from start to finish as you watch a handful of extremely unconventional people thread their ways through their own eccentric stories. The fact that all of them remain somewhat opaque even at story's end doesn't matter a bit. We have become thoroughly interested in them, abounding as they are in a full complement of human complexities. It is refreshingly assumed that the human condition is just not easily parsed.
The movie opens with Oliver (Ewan McGregor) as he sorts through his father's belongings after the old man's long, slow death from cancer. From that point forward the movie unfolds through Oliver's memories - of his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) and mother Georgia (Mary Page Keller), and of Anna, a nomadic French actress (Melanie Laurent, so memorable in Inglorious Basterds.)
In the early scenes we meet Arthur the dog, his father's legacy to Oliver, who comments periodically via sub-titles on the emotional tangle that all of them inhabit. As Arthur becomes the connecting link among all the people we care about, we watch carefully their reactions to him and his to them. It is at this early point that we begin to realize that we are in the hands of a writer and a director of uncommon talent for original detail. It turns out, of course, that one man, Mike Mills, wears both those hats.
After his cancer diagnosis, Hal tells his son he has always been gay, that he and his mother had an understanding about it, that he intends to find a lover (Goran Vienjic), and that he will use his remaining years to cruise the public gay culture. No one could be better suited to this tricky role than the dignified and graceful Christopher Plummer.
Oliver, damaged by his parents' distant marriage and distrustful of any kind of commitment, surrenders to prodding from father and friends to put some fun in his life. In one of Hollywood's most inspired meetings, he goes to a costume party as Sigmund Freud and meets Anna. From here, the movie is shot through with the joy of discovery in all quarters as it papers over the sadness that each of the characters carries forward from the previous lives they are trying to leave behind. .
The writing and directing here are so delicate that any bit of miscasting could have sunk the whole. In Mike Mills' hands, everything works. Ewan McGregor, hugely appealing in his natural warmth, wins us completely as the vulnerable Oliver who can't resist the love of either Anna or his dog Arthur. Melanie Laurent's Anna is curiously enigmatic, even mysterious. She and McGregor have created a credible and winning romance that any audience will appreciate. And if you want to enjoy a scene stealer, watch every move made by Mary Page Keller as Georgia, the mother of Oliver's memories. And the title is perfect. All of them are beginners at lives they haven't tried before.
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