Dir. Mike Mills
(2011, R, 105 min)

Perhaps it’s a credit to writer-director Mike Mills that his semi-autobiographical film, Beginners, makes us feel a bit too much. Or rather, too much of the same. He does a great job of establishing a plaintive mood, but the relentless somberness of his approach can be oppressive, hanging over his film like a heavy shroud. Though the film is not without humor, it feels at times airless, confining.

However, I admire the film. It’s a humane study of love and loneliness, which occur in its characters sometimes concurrently. In its low-key, meditative style it reminded me of films by Sofia Coppola (Somewhere) and Rodrigo Garcia (Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her). Starring Ewan McGregor as Oliver, a West Coast graphic artist (and surrogate for Mills), it cuts back and forth in time between two important developments in his life: the coming-out of his then-75-year-old father (Christopher Plummer), who would die five years later of cancer, and his later relationship with French actress Anna (Melanie Laurent), another mercurial soul who may be his perfect match. Intercut with these are scenes from his childhood, during which he was often enlisted to provide his mother the loving affection she never got from her husband.

Filmmakers waxing nostalgic about their upbringing can be a recipe for self-indulgence, but Mills shows greater control than that, a lot like Coppola, who seems to have drawn from the gilded-cage Hollywood milieu she grew up in to make thoughtful rather than self-pitying films. Similarly, Mills demonstrates a stillness that allows us to pick up on small but meaningful details. A pregnant pause, a holding of hands – when Oliver and Anna meet for the first time, she is suffering laryngitis and the two communicate mostly with their eyes.

The film’s nonlinear structure makes it less like a story and more like a stream of memories. They move gracefully one to the next, mixed with photos describing the eras Oliver and his parents lived through, and I was carried along by its rhythm, though a few descriptions of what life was like for gays in the 1950s feel too political for a film this personal. His father’s late-life activism is interesting, but the ways in which gay men were forced to hide their sexuality feels like a subject for another movie.

But as the film nears the end of its 105 minutes, which feel longer than they are, its moroseness started to drain my energy. A film of this nature doesn’t build so much as roam, and it roams to sad and desolate places to the point where we long for someone to crack a joke just to break up its grim progress. Mills’s last scripted feature was 2005’s Thumbsucker, which also showed insight into a family dynamic and ranked among my favorite films of its year. In-between he directed the documentary Does Your Soul Have a Cold?, about depression in Japan. After this we could all use some cheering up.