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Learning to Live

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars.

Thirty-eight-year-old Oliver is suffering an early midlife crisis of sorts. Still reeling from the news that his recently widowed father is coming out of the closet, he is once again floored to learn that the never-more-alive Hal (Christopher Plummer) has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Whatís more, Oliverís own romances are hopelessly doomed by a lifelong resistance to commitment.

Despite his boyish good looks Ė he is played, tenderly and with a touch of indelible sorrow, by Ewan McGregor Ė Oliver isnít the type to hop from bed to bed, retreating from the first sign of seriousness. In fact, he is nothing but serious, in his dedication to his once-distant dad, and in his promising relationship with Anna (Mťlanie Laurent, of Inglourious Basterds), who tries to remedy his melancholy.

But Oliver is a slave to his psyche, formed over years of quiet trauma and the lingering notion that something was not quite right. His fatherís coming out? That explains a lot Ė the chasm that seemed to separate his parents, who were friendly but rarely loving with each other, and his motherís not-always-quiet desperation.

Beginners, a sweetly humorous, semi-autobiographical drama from writer-director Mike Mills Ė the Thumbsucker creator, not the R.E.M. bassist Ė is the story of Oliverís learning to accept a past he cannot change, a present that seems at once surreal and tragic, and his own fear of love. Trite as that may sound, this is a beautiful work, not just for the emotions it deftly reveals, but also for its skillful use of still photography to evoke moods and memories.

A movie like this might have seemed maudlin. Fortunately, Mills aims not to yank at the heartstrings but to create a believable human drama, devoid of artifice, and let the chips fall where they may. His is a story simply told. The emotional cues donít hit us over the head, and the characters are fully drawn, not stereotypes or devices.

Take Hal. He has lived a long and, we assume, frustrating life posing as a straight man, but Beginners isnít much concerned with his orientation, or Oliverís reaction to it. (In case youíre worried, Oliver is surprised, but otherwise unfazed.) Itís not a movie about being gay or straight, but about people learning to find their comfort zones.

Plummer, with a twinkle in his eye that even cancer canít extinguish, exudes a playfulness that McGregor, who gradually allows himself a muted sense of hope, wisely allows to shine. Even in his final days, Hal is the invigorating spirit of Beginners, though Oliverís Jack Russell terrier Ė with whom Oliver carries on two-way conversations Ė exudes a certain warmth of his own.

Thatís not to say that Oliver, or even the slyly alluring Anna, are bereft of the wit that flows easily through Millsí screenplay. (Anna seduces her lugubrious beau with a game, intent on shaking him from his too-obvious doldrums.) But the movie, and Hal specifically, give Oliver a choice that is universal in its implications: learn to live for the moment or be burdened by the weight of the past.