Balancing comedy with tragedy is not something many filmmakers can do, but with Beginners, Mike Mills is gathering a reputation for doing just that.
“This is a semi-autobiographical film, about a young guy who finds out his father is dying of cancer. And as tough as that is, he also finds out his dad is gay,” said Rosemarie Fulbrook, one of the organizers of the Kitchen Stove Film Series, which is bringing Beginners to Penticton on Oct. 13 at the Pen-Mar Theatre.
Beginners juggles two chronologies to tell the heartwarming story of two major points in the life of Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a talented illustrator.
“That, to our whole selection committee, sounded like just the most amazing premise for a movie. It is supposed to be very moving, very funny and obviously some big character studies are going on here,” said Fulbrook.
One timeline follows the slow-burning deterioration of Oliver’s father (Christopher Plummer), who is dying of cancer. But his impending death is not the only news that has caught Oliver off guard; his divorced father, at the age of 75, has also come out of the closet. Just like that, he gets a new wardrobe, a new boyfriend and an entirely new outlook on life.
“So this person that is known throughout your life, represented in one manner, as a parent or adult usually is to a child, all of a sudden has switched,” said Fulbrook. “It is not only the switch of ‘Oh my goodness, I am going to lose this person,’ but that this person is someone I didn’t actually quite know.”
Following his father’s death, a bereaved Oliver becomes somewhat of a shut-in. As Beginners takes us through his personal journey, the film flashes forward, intercutting a budding relationship between Oliver and a young French actress (Inglourious Basterd’s Mélanie Laurent) whom he meets at a costume party that he attends under duress. The twin narratives gradually reveal subtle associations about how Oliver reacts to both these unpredictable relationships, and how his father and girlfriend motivate him to surpass his self-prescribed limitations.
McGregor and Laurent have natural onscreen chemistry, and Plummer is outstanding in his rich portrayal of a dying man who is finally able to live honestly, breaking out of his shell so near the end of his life. The ensemble cast lends the film a warm, understated aura that never feels the least bit contrived.
While it may not seem like a fit subject for a comedy, Mills manages it, as he did in his 2005 film, Thumbsucker.
“In my mind, the best of the comedies are also dramas, where you are really working through some fairly intense psychological stuff, because that’s where the areas of comedy happen, where you’re moving away from slapstick comedy and getting into situational comedy,” said Fulbrook. “Most of those situations, when you think about it, are not that funny. To find the humour in them and to bring it out is a tremendous skill for some filmmakers and I understand this is one of those.”
Choosing which films they are going to screen at the Kitchen Stove Film Series is a difficult job, according to Fulbrook. The Kitchen Stove committee was to whittle down a large number of films, choosing just four to fill the spots they have available.
“There are lots of great movies out there, but in order to make a season that incorporates all of the criteria of what we try to look for in a film, sometimes it’s a little tough,” said Fulbrook. “I have to really credit the people that sit on the committee and have worked with me on this over the years.”
There will be two showings of the film on Oct. 13, at 4 and 7 p.m. Tickets $12 each are available at the Penticton Art Gallery (250-493-2928) and the Book Shop (250-492-6661). Limited tickets available at the door.