Beginners at first appears to be focused instead on his father, Hal. After the death of his wife of 40 years, retired art historian Hal stuns Oliver with the successive revelations that he is 1. gay; 2. keen to pursue new sexual relationships; and 3. suffering with terminal cancer. The film picks up after Hal's death, but jumps back and forth over the immediately preceding years, and back to Oliver's childhood and relationship with his mother, Georgia. In the "present" (2003, according to Oliver's insistent narration), as well as tying up the loose ends of Hal's life, including adopting his dog, Arthur, Oliver begins a relationship with a French actress, Anna. His previous relationships, documented in his art, have all disintegrated because of his creeping disengagement, and as his romance with Anna blossoms, he begins to fear repetition. But Anna also has inhibitions that stretch back to her relationship with her parents, and, together, they hesitantly piece together a plausible future for themselves.
There's just so much to like about this relatively low-key film. It's played great (though Ewan McGregor still struggles with a US accent); it's not afraid to trust the viewer to follow its novel-like narrative (your hand is not held); it has some great moments of humour in it (e.g. psychoanalysis at a party; consciousness-expanding graffiti vandalism); it has a star-turn from a talking dog (you'll see); it's quietly didactic on the progress that's been made in gay rights (and artfully done too); and it is, ultimately, a crowd-pleasing, feel-good film that is still far from the predictable mainstream. Some might find that elements of the film's cuteness, for instance the talking dog (who's not really talking, just so we're clear), are a little too much, but it suited me just fine and, anyway, it totally earned any excess cuteness. Some might argue that it flatters liberal values too much, but, well, those are fine, progressive things to stand up and be proud of (even while there's still a long way to go). Anyway, to conclude this gush-fest: highly recommended.
Grade: A- (high +2 on the Leeper Scale)