Despite the fact that they are so close to us, our parents can present the biggest mysteries in our lives. What do they really think? What were their lives like before we came along? What are their secret hopes and desires buried underneath all of that parental devotion? Which of their own interests are they tamping down for the sake of us, their progeny?

Director Mike Mills (Thumbsucker) plumbed some of the reserve and mystery of his own father when he undertook the script for his engaging new film Beginners. When the California artist and director’s widowed father was 75, he revealed that he was gay. Paul Mills then embarked on a voyage of self-discovery chronicled in the film’s altered-but-true version of the Mills’ family drama.

A product of the self-censorship and proper behavior of a previous generation, Paul married, had children, and followed the expected and orderly life path. He was a man of his era, his son says. “That generation, they don’t talk about their problems or their emotional lives. I only found out my mom was married to someone before my dad from my sister. My mom never talked about it,” he says. Mike’s been touring the country building buzz for his exceedingly quirky film.

In Beginners, Christopher Plummer is an acerbic, razor-sharp museum curator who reveals a tender, vulnerable side as he revels in his discovery of gay life. In a charming role reversal, Hal Fields (Plummer) becomes the tentative teenager dipping his toes in sexual experimentation and romantic infatuation, while his son Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is the wise, old sage offering insight into the semiotics of rainbow flags.

A lyrical and time-tripping drama, Beginners skips back and forth through the years to Oliver as a child, as a grown man helping his father grapple with the cancer that fells him a few short years after he comes out of the closet, and to the present as Oliver contends with his own romantic life post-mom and dad.

When the film opens, Oliver, in a serious funk, attends a costume party dressed as Sigmund Freud. There, he beguiles pretty French actress Anna (Inglourious Basterds‘ Mélanie Laurent), and the couple begin a hot-and-cold romance complicated by both of their relationships with their fathers and a sense of trepidation about love in general. Though married to a performance artist and fellow practitioner of preciousness, filmmaker Miranda July (Me and You and Everyone We Know and the upcoming The Future), Mills did not base Anna on his wife but, in fact, invented Anna to externalize Oliver’s feelings about his father.

Beginners manages to charm despite a tendency toward art-house cuddliness. For example, Oliver has a talking Jack Russell terrier, a device that you will either find irritating or lovable. Much of the film’s integrity is due to Plummer and McGregor, who have a chemistry and a depth that lends real validity to their characters’ complicated relationship.

A gallery artist, video director, and graphic designer who has collaborated with bands like Air and designers like Marc Jacobs and counts Spike Jonze and Sofia Coppola among his smart-set pals, Mills leaned heavily on his art school training at New York City’s Cooper Union under the likes of noted conceptual artist Hans Haacke. One of Beginners‘ distinguishing features is his use of a rapid-fire montage of vintage advertising and newsreel images that give a sense of how life might have felt — at least in popular culture — in Oliver’s father’s age. “It was and is kind of the most exciting part of the film to me,” Mills says. “As a graphic designer/artist/filmmaker, it is sort of everything integrated.”

You’ll see images of happy suburban dads and dishy cake-baking moms, coupled with the melancholy reality that all that unbridled pleasure masked a world of dissatisfaction and hidden realities. “To me, it’s endlessly fascinating to think, ‘What was it like in 1955?’ ”

And by that token, Mills wonders how we can gain insight into another age. “Is it by looking at a phone? Is it by trying to see what pets are like? Is it the president? Is it a movie?”

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