There is a brief, telling scene in the early passage of Mike Mills’s Beginners in which Christopher Plummer’s medicated character, a former museum director hospitalized for what turns out to be stage-four cancer, spins off into an aesthetic reverie in his drugged state. He takes in the room’s artistic potential, from the cheesy painting on the wall to the family snapshots to the dot pattern of the ceiling panel. He has an artistic vision, even in a humble hospital room.
For Santa Barbarans of a certain vintage or cultural swim, that scene—and the overall scenario of writer/director Mills’s ode to his late father, the influential former Santa Barbara Museum of Art director Paul Mills—strikes home in a way that prevents us from viewing this film in any cool, detached way. The usual “work of fiction … purely coincidental” disclaimer at the end is pure legal formality. Although names and circumstances have been shifted, and Santa Barbara is never mentioned, this is very much a son’s tribute to his father, whose imprint is all over the Santa Barbara scene.
In particular, filmmaker Mills’s homage deals with the surprising last chapter of his father’s life, starting when he came out at age 75, after the death of his longtime wife. He died four years later, but spent his final years embracing “out” mode. Mills is a fascinating filmmaker, well-known for his music-video work and with one quirky jewel of a debut feature, his adaptation of Walter Kirn’s Thumbsucker. With Beginners, his more definitively personal filmography begins.
Stylistically, Beginners tells a compelling and emotionally powerful story, but with a freedom of cinematic expression. A chronological puzzle ace, Mills moves fluidly back and forth in time, flashing back to early life with his free-spirited mother to his days with his ailing father, and fast-forwarding past his father’s death to his own hopeful but twisty love affair with a French actress, played by the winning Mélanie (Inglourious Basterds) Laurent. That affair begins oddly, in half-silence due to her laryngitis, just one of the eccentric touches in a film that also tells its tale through our protagonist’s drawings, graffiti antics, and freewheeling cutaways to moments in sociopolitical history that help set the cultural stage.
If Beginners, at its core, is an elegiac film, it is also one that cautiously celebrates art, life, and love—whatever its manifestation—and not necessarily in that order. We suspect that Paul would most heartily approve.