For starters

As a title, Beginners sounds a note of humility, albeit self-consciously. Certainly that makes it the right name for writer-director Mike Mills’ touching, autobiographical new film. In it, a commitment-phobic graphic artist is supportive but bewildered when his father comes out of the closet at 75—just in time to face a terminal illness.

Beginners is based on the true story of director Mike Mills’ life. Ewan McGregor plays a young artist whose father (Christopher Plummer) comes out at age 75.

A role model for young creatives of the turning-your-life-into-art school, Mills stages his own grief as a grappling match between intuition and cleverness. His movie is transparently what most movies are in stealth: an emotional course of decisions. The most useful is the casting. Ewan McGregor, the artist, and Christopher Plummer, the father, are plausibly related, radiating tenderness. Mélanie Laurent and Goran Visnjic enliven slightly underwritten roles as their respective love interests. Their shared essential quality seems to be the convenience of emotional availability.

The central courtship (McGregor’s) transpires against an evocative backdrop of hotel rooms, used bookstores, taco trucks and moody Southern California sunlight, with slideshow and graffiti accents. Sometimes it’s hard to know if Mills is old-fashioned and trying to be hip or the other way around, which makes it hard to concentrate on anything else. As in his first film, the coming-of-age snapshot Thumbsucker, Mills reflexively reaches for his CD-cover and music-video bags of tricks, accumulating indie quirk and risking a veneer of breadth at the expense of depth.

Beginners does get a little fidgety, flashing back and forward in time and cycling through its arty concepts. Having learned that our hero tends to let his promising relationships go, we see cartoon renderings of his ex-girlfriends; having learned that his father’s tumor is the size of a quarter, we see a screen full of coins. And then there is the matter of the soulful Jack Russell terrier who talks, through subtitles. (One feels uneasy yet duty-bound to point out that Mills is married to Miranda July, whose new movie The Future also is in theaters now, and also involves an anguished young creative person, a generation gap, and a talking pet.)

But gradually these mannerisms come to seem less about showing off than about laying bare an authentic, affecting introspection. It recalls not the shallow clutter of recent Michel Gondry but the maturely tragicomic profundity of mid-vintage Woody Allen, deftly transposed into the milieu of a media-saturated generation whose good fortune, Mills’ protagonist confesses, “allowed us to feel a sadness our parents didn’t have time for.” McGregor’s sensitivity is well deployed here, and Mills’ identification is palpable.

Mills’ peculiar but not unproductive course of decisions is a piling up of ornamental textures, so as to better perceive the durable surface of feeling beneath them. Watching this gently assured and open-hearted film gives an unshakable sense that its maker is on his way toward a masterpiece.

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