Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is engaged in the saddest of tasks, clearing out his late father’s home, choosing what to take, what to give away, what no one will want. He brings his father’s dog home with him, giving him a tour. “This is the bathroom,” he says. “This is the dining room, where people come and eat sometimes.” But it is clear that no one comes to eat there. Oliver, a graphic designer, is a loner and in his grief he is even more isolated from the rest of the world.
Writer-director Mike Mills (“Thumbsucker”), a graphic designer himself, based this film on his own experience. His father came out at age 74 for the first time and lived an enthusiastic and joyous life as a gay man until he died. He tells the story impressionistically, going back and forth between Oliver’s quiet, if sometimes conflicted, support of his father’s new experiences and relationships and then his illness and months after his father’s death, when he meets an actress (Melanie Laurant of “Inglourious Basterds” and “The Concert”), falls for her, and struggles to overcome his sense of loss and learn from his father’s ability to give himself wholeheartedly to a relationship. There are flashbacks, too, showing us Oliver’s spirited if complicated mother (the superb Mary Page Keller), who was married to his father for 44 years. And Oliver mingles in details of history and even cosmology as he tells us what happened. It works beautifully. Mills tells the story with delicacy and tenderness — and with humor. The best lines are given to the dog.
Christopher Plummer is outstanding as Oliver’s father Hal, who has no regrets about his marriage but is determined to make up for the time he could not be fully himself. He calls Oliver in the middle of the night to ask what kind of music he heard in a club. “House music,” he repeats, writing it down, to make sure he knows how to ask for it the next time. He has gay pride meetings in his home. He falls in love with a man and invites him to move in, understanding that his new lover will not be monogamous. Oliver’s reaction is mixed admiration, envy, and a kind of sibling rivalry, and McGregor is an understated marvel in showing us all of that and more, without a word.
After Hal’s death, Oliver goes to a costume party, dressed as Freud. He meets Anna, who has laryngitis, and communicates only through writing. A romance begins, but Oliver will have to allow himself to take the risk of loving her, and sharing himself. At work, even though he knows the client who just wants an album cover will hate it, he has insisted on submitting a series of drawings about the history of sadness. Can he make sense of his own history of sadness?
Tenderly told and exquisitely performed, this is a gentle wonder, with characters we root for and emotions we believe in.
Parents should know that this is the fact-based story of a 74-year-old man who comes out following the death of his wife and then is enthusiastically involved in the gay community until he becomes terminally ill; the film deals with issues of grief and loss and has strong and explicit language and sexual references, non-explicit situations and some drinking.
Family discussion: What can you tell about Oliver from his relationship with the dog? From his artwork? Why is this story told in non-linear fashion and what do the historical references add? What was hardest for Oliver to accept from his father?
If you like this, try: “Nothing in Common” with Tom Hanks