This story line in this film might sound
way too agenda-driven to be enjoyable: adult
sonís mother dies of cancer, then his father announces that he is coming out
of the closet. After 43 years of
marriage? Then, after a brief fling
with the gay lifestyle in general and a younger man in particular, his father,
too, dies of cancer. Meanwhile, the
grieving son struggles with the idea of making himself vulnerable to a new
Doesnít sound very amusing, does it?
Ah, but Director and Writer Mike Mills has created a quirky, funny,
lovely little valentine thatís fun to watch, despite the very serious
The casting is superb.
Christopher Plummer plays Hal, the Dad, with just the right combination
of irascible curmudgeon, doting Dad, repressed plutocrat, and likeable
adventurer. Ewan McGregor, as his son
Oliver, conveys a complex rainbow of emotions (pun intended):
shocked that he had no idea who his Dad really was, genuine affection
for his once-distant father, still sorting through distant memories of his
pretty-but-sad Mom, obsessed with grieving, even at work, and content,
somehow, with solitary living and long silences.
But Oliverís social awareness is
awakened first by inheriting his Dadís dog, a Jack Russell terrier, who
canít stand for Oliver to be out of his sight.
So Oliver just takes him everywhere. And
finds he can talk to the dog easily. This
is where Director/Writer Mills has a little fun by training the camera on the
dog and inserting subtitle dialogue from the dog.
(OK, itís funny the first few times, but it gets a little overused.)
Oliver has a couple of friends who
insist that he come with them to a costume party, where he disguises himself
as Sigmund Freud, pretending to ďanalyzeĒ everyone who wants a private
session (and conveniently not having to do much talking himself).
Thatís when he meets Anna (Melanie
Laurent), who has to write her responses, because she has laryngitis, which of
course pierces Oliverís carefully-constructed defensive mechanisms. That,
and sheís impossible not to look at. Sheís
a model/actress who is so accustomed to being away, and leaving people, that
sheís managed to make herself almost completely isolated.
But sheís smart and funny and engaging.
They play a game where they pretend they are aliens, describing their
environment for the first time. They
are both very patient with each other about self-revelation.
They both allow long silences, without the need to fill them with idle
chatter. They both appreciate old music
and good books. They take it very
slowly, but they are obviously developing a quiet affection for each other.
But heís used to leaving people, also.
And both seem afraid as the relationship progresses.
Like they donít really trust happiness, which, of course, then
becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Meanwhile, Oliver continues to process
the death and dying of his father, through lots of flashbacks, and his
end-of-life gay lifestyle. Halís
ďboyfriendĒ would bring him surprise gifts, like a grasshopper (which
turned out to be pretend) or a caterpillar (which turned out to be real).
The gay guys have a fireworks party where they yell expletives as loud
as they can. Just because.
Director/writer Mills will interrupt the narrative to show us images on
the screen of how people dressed in certain eras, who the President was, what
products were advertised. Heíll show
visuals of inanimate objects, give a house tour (this is my crowded bathroom).
As if his attention continues to re-focus throughout this story, which
feels more subjective than linear, anyway.
But thereís a deep sensitivity here,
as well as a playful sense of humor, that endears the viewer to all these
struggling characters, none of whom can quite figure out who they are, but
after a while you realize that thatís one of the interesting parts about
life---continually searching, seeking, observing, marveling, and wondering.
As if weíre all just Beginners.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Co-Pastor, United