Indie Focus: ‘Beginners’ has a piece of Mike Mills’ soul

For actors Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer, the film “Beginners” presented the odd challenge of being a fictionalized retelling of a few emotionally tumultuous years in the life of its writer-director Mike Mills. With a strong sense of responsibility to their real-world counterparts, the performers have brought to vivid life Mills’ unusual story.

The heady, heartfelt film — set to have its world premiere as part of the Toronto International Film Festival this week, where it has one of the prime screening spots for a film looking for distribution — unwinds along twin story-strands, as Oliver (McGregor)is grieving over the recent death of his father, Hal (Plummer) while also looking back at their relationship during the last years of Hal’s life. Following the death of Oliver’s mother, Hal had come out as gay and then, while embracing his new life with an affirmative vitality, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. As Oliver grapples with the isolating grief of Hal’s passing, he meets Anna (Mélanie Laurent), a French actress briefly in Los Angeles.

For all that is drawn from Mills’ own life — his father did come out as gay at age 75 following the death of Mills’ mother and passed away five years later — there is plenty that is not. Oliver does not have two sisters as Mills does and Laurent’s actress character is not intended as a stand-in for Mills’ real-life wife, artist and filmmaker Miranda July.

“I’m still trying to figure that one out,” Mills said of how to untangle the film’s uncanny mix of his personal story, historical fact and narrative fiction.

“It is a blend of some very factual events and much more fictionalized strands,” Mills added recently on the phone from New York, where he was finishing the film. “That’s confusing and I enjoy that sort of contradiction. It’s also confusing in that there are some things that are pretty much pretty close to events that really happened, but by the time I write it into a scene and cast someone like Christopher Plummer, set it in a different place, is that any more real than the other strands of this which are totally fictionalized? To me the whole thing is interestingly confusing.”

The Los Angeles-based Mills, 44, has worked in many realms, from fine art to graffiti culture to graphic design to directing music videos and commercials, tied together perhaps by a sense of willful naiveté and openness to emotion. He was featured as a subject in the artist documentary “Beautiful Losers,” has made his own documentaries and directed one other narrative feature, 2005’s “Thumbsucker,” about a teenager who still sucked his thumb; it starred Tilda Swinton, Lou Pucci, Keanu Reeves and Vince Vaughn.

McGregor described Mills as “the director I’ve been looking for for a long time,” no minor statement from an actor who has worked with, among others, Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, George Lucas and Michael Bay. McGregor likened his working relationship with Mills to the one he had early in his career with Danny Boyle, when they made three films together.

“I tried to get a flavor of him, but he never really wanted me to play him,” said McGregor from London of the challenge of taking on Mills’ role in the filmmaker’s own story. “And I did in the end do a kind of version of Mike, there’s some physical things I suppose that come from him, but there’s something more. What I tried to capture, which I hope I did, is his spirit. He’s quite a sensitive, interesting man.”

McGregor at least had Mills on which to base his character. Plummer, recently nominated for an Academy Award for playing Leo Tolstoy in “The Last Station,” faced the additional dilemma of playing a refraction of a real person he could not meet, all for the watchful eye of someone who knew that person in intimate detail.

The role “terrified me for a moment,” Plummer said from Canada. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, the person one is going to be playing is his father and it’s going to be rather embarrassing with the son sitting there.’ I said, ‘You know I’m going to have to be me doing this, not your dad whom I didn’t know.’ Michael showed me some photographs, but he didn’t push me to be his father.”

Mills noted that despite it seeming unusual, whenever he tells people the story of his father, a museum director, coming out late in life he often hears of someone else who went through a similar experience. He bristles, however, at any attempt to categorize “Beginners” as either straight or gay.

“It’s a film from a straight son about his gay dad that’s filled with curiosity and empathy and absolutely no judgment or shame,” he said. “In a nutshell, that’s what it is, and it’s not making any big claims about gayness or straightness or anything like that.”

That sense of finding a regenerative hopefulness in even the most complicated of circumstances is perhaps the film’s overriding idea.

“Hopefully that’s the egg that the chicken lays at the end of the film, like the opposite of inertia,” said Mills of the story’s sneaky optimism. “And while it felt like messy disarray it was also really enlightening. And I think a lot of the film is about accepting the mess and seeing how positive the mess can be. I remember saying that to everybody on the crew, that this is not an inward, downward story. It’s hopefully like an explosion out to people.”