Certainly one doesn’t need a particular organization of the planets to get into an existential mood, but it’s midsummer, and we here at Feminéma like to mark big seasonal events with some pondering. (Lord, what fools these mortals be!) And if there’s one thing film can help us do, it’s to ponder the big questions. My own star-gazing has been assisted this weekend with two big releases in my teeny home-away-from-home in Central Jersey: Mike Mills’ Beginners (you’ll remember how much I loved Thumbsucker, his first feature) and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which I’ll write about tomorrow if possible. Beginners may flirt with the twee — there are some incredibly cute montages of great dates between Ewan McGregor and Mélanie Laurent in which they rollerskate down a hotel’s hallways or hike in the Hollywood hills; but it’s no rom-com. It’s a serious, ultimately hopeful film with a perfect cast that keep you riveted in every scene.

The specific nexus of problems addressed by Oliver (McGregor) involves love, one’s parents, and death. In a series of vignettes ricocheting back and forth between Oliver’s present and his past, the film is oriented around Oliver’s reconsideration of his parents’ unhappy marriage, his father Hal (Christopher Plummer)’s announcement after his wife’s death that he’s gay, and Hal’s relationship with a lovely, gangly, and hopelessly transparent man named Andy (Goran Visnjic, whom I barely recognized in a floppy haircut and unflattering clothes). Most important, it treats Hal’s illness and death, during which Oliver cared for his father through some wholly realistic and intimate ups and downs. Don’t all of us wrestle with our parents’ relationships when we think about our own? That’s Oliver’s problem; his parents’ unhappiness haunts him such that he can’t keep a girlfriend.

Oliver works as a graphic artist, though he’s suffering some serious blocks following Hal’s death: it seems he cannot help but create a cartoon History of Sadness in panels rather than the cd-cover art he’s been assigned. (Ahem, Mr. Mills: please publish that History, as I found it delightfully perverse.) The art is a neat mirror onto his thoughts. He often says things to himself, which I appreciate: the act of list-making as a bulwark against interior chaos. When he says to himself, “Sex. Life. Healing. Nature. Magic,” he’s reprising something he hears from the beautiful Anna (Laurent), whom he meets-cute at a costume party: “People like us, half of them believe things will never work out. The other half believe in magic.” She says it in a way that reveals more than a little disdain for that latter group; she and Oliver are, decidedly, members of the former who — despite themselves — long, desperately, for magic.

Is it his nature or the specific circumstances of mourning his father that makes Oliver so skittish about relationships? At first it appears that he has simply rejected the kind of marriage his parents endured: not loveless but perpetually dissatisfied, a quality he perceived in them even as a child. (His childhood closeness to his eccentric mother [Mary Page Keller] is displayed beautifully; I wished there had been more.) But the more we plumb his depths, the more we see that he’s managed to repeat his parents’ relationship mistakes, even if he’s avoided a marriage that looks like their relationship on the surface.

In fact, Oliver seems to wonder whether Hal’s late-in-life embrace of his sexual orientation, as well as his eagerness to engage with gay rights movements and communities, indicates that he possessed a capacity for self-understanding that still evades Oliver. In teeny, tiny moments — when the two men bicker over whether “everyone” knows that a rainbow flag indicates gay rights, or whether Hal should tell his lover Andy about the cancer — we see that there are no clear answers to Oliver’s soul-searching and his attempts to understand his father.

Walking out of the theater, my partner nailed it best: as he put it, Beginners is a film that might have failed in someone else’s hands. But between Mills’ gentle and serious vision, a terrific editing job, and the perfect and subtle acting of every single member of the cast — and here let me beg the heavens: please let me go through my next existential crisis in bed with Mélanie Laurent and Ewan McGregor — the film balances light and dark, whimsical and heartbreaking, and the interaction between repression and self-revelation. It’s elegantly done. Even the scenes with the needy little Jack Russell terrier, which could have plummeted into the depths of hopeless cuteness, always appealed to me as just delightful enough without a sugar rush.

I didn’t love it as much as I loved Thumbsucker, I think because I found the sets and locations distractingly posh. It’s almost Woody Allen-like — the extraordinarily well-appointed Los Angeles hillside homes, the great art on the walls, the way that Laurent’s hair is always so perfectly unbrushed. In contrast, I found the Oregon drabness of Thumbsucker and its subtle family resemblances between the actors Tilda Swinton and Lou Pucci so exquisitely wrought, right down to their hopeful, needy unloveliness; I longed, in this film, for a bit more of that realism rather than a rarefied LA world.

But oh, what Mike Mills can do with great actors — and oh, his gift for getting them into his films! Beginners is compelling in every scene due to McGregor’s and Plummer’s acting, their handsomeness, their appreciation for their lovers. If this film answers its questions with “the eternal Yes” of love, as Mr. Emerson puts it in Room with a View (1985), it doesn’t do so cheaply, or easily. See it, and enjoy your midsummer questions about life and existence — till anon, when I think on the screen about Tree of Life.

With a title like this, it sounds like one of those films that’s going to traffic in indie wackiness, like “Lars and the Real Girl” (2007) sounded when you first heard about it.  “Lars” started out quietly wacky, so when it became wonderful and profound it snuck up on you; and while Mike Mills’ “Thumbsucker” quickly gets to a similar place, the director’s only gesture to kookiness is his (brilliant) decision to cast Keanu Reeves as a mystical orthodontist.  Instead, this film opens with something disturbing — 17-year-old Justin still sucks his thumb and wants so badly to put it behind him — and slowly and gently pries open the question of identity, the crutches we use in lieu of true comfort, and the ways our needs for unequivocal love can be foiled by our unwillingness to offer it to others.

There’s something so primal, so familiar, so depressing about the way Justin (Lou Pucci) hides in a bathroom stall at school to suck his thumb.  He sneaks it in at home, too, but it’s easy to get caught by his father, Mike (Vincent D’Onofrio).  Neither Mike nor Justin’s mother Audrey (Tilda Swinton) know what to do about it — because they’ve got their own crutches.  At the moment, Audrey’s obsessed with entering a contest to meet a cheesy TV actor, and no matter how much her sons make fun of her, she’s determined to try.  “It’s just for fun!” she exclaims anytime Justin asks if there’s something up in her marriage.  She means it, too — but, like Justin, there’s something she needs that she isn’t getting.

Enter, of all people, a shaggy-haired Keanu Reeves as Perry the orthodontist, who intuits Justin’s secret.  He’s a breath of fresh air because he sees thumbsucking as normal, reasonable — just a problem for maintaining straight teeth.  “It’s an understandable habit,” he says.  “In fact, what’s strange is that people ever quit.”  In a brilliantly wry short sequence (and yes, that’s the second time I’ve used “brilliant” in connection to Keanu Reeves!), he holds forth about all the small, forgotten memories that contribute to our crippled sense of self.  “Some dumb babysitter holds your mouth shut so she can watch her soap operas in peace, and at forty you wonder why you can’t stay married.”  He convinces a skeptical Justin to try hypnosis, which they undertake right there in the dentist’s chair, gazing at one of Perry’s hippie-dippy posters of wolves howling at the moon.  It works:  Justin leaves the office unable to suck his thumb anymore — but the thing is, without his thumb he has nothing, and he’s adrift.  It’s no wonder that when a teacher suggests he try attention-deficit disorder medication, he leaps at the chance to solve his problems with a pill:  the pill becomes his replacement thumb.  And as far as Justin’s concerned, it’s awesome.  Sadly, due to the beautiful strains of Elliott Smith covering Cat Stevens’ song “Trouble” — echoes of how that song infused “Harold and Maude” (1973) — we know his new confidence won’t last.  (BTW: the soundtrack, mostly by the Polyphonic Spree with extra cuts by Smith, is fantastic.)

There are a lot of things to love about this film, but I’ll just focus on three:  first, Lou Pucci as Justin.  He’s so good (and was recognized with Best Actor honors at Sundance and the Berlin International Film Festival).  He alternates between an awful kind of introversion in the earliest scenes — thumb in mouth, hair falling down over his face — to an equally awful new confidence once he becomes the relentless, successful king of his high school debate team.  With his hair brushed back neatly and his deceptively innocent-looking eyes, it’s disconcerting when he takes apart other teams.  “It’s my professional opinion that you’ve become a monster,” his debate coach tells him in the end.  But in between Pucci offers us glimpses of true emotional openness with his big eyes and youthful hope.  Which leads to my second favorite thing:  Pucci’s exchanges with the inscrutable actor, Tilda Swinton, as his mother Audrey.  Not only do they look like mother and son, and not only do they manage to create utterly believable scenes of typical mother-son tension; they also capture with amazing screen chemistry those few lingering moments of a more intense love for one another left over from childhood, a love that renders Pucci as soft and feminine as I’ve ever seen a male actor appear.  I’d say it was quasi-sexual, though I don’t want to creep anyone out:  it’s not creepy, it’s real, and such a beautiful encapsulation of how much Justin wants something from his mother that he can’t possibly articulate.  I’ve never seen anything like it onscreen, and it’s great.  (In fact, considering that we already know how great Tilda Swinton’s acting is, this only further underlines my first point:  it great acting chops in Pucci to keep up with Swinton.)  

The third favorite thing I’ll mention about the film is that “Thumbsucker” somehow manages throughout to show all of its characters in motion — that is, Justin’s problems and his attempts to change don’t appear against a static background, but are likened to the problems and changes of everyone else.  From Perry the orthodontist to Justin’s “normal” little brother, from Audrey to the girl Justin has a crush on, each character sees things go from bad to worse and back again; everyone has a story arc.  No one is normal, and everyone’s searching for the love that might bring them into equilibrium.  The very last scene, in which Justin is back in that sad little orthodontist’s office while Perry sucks down a couple of cigarettes and waxes philosophical, is so perfect I wanted to cry, except it was too true and funny for that. 

The director Mike Mills is already getting great reviews for his new film, “Beginners” (2010) with Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer, about a man whose father decides to come out of the closet at age 75.  I can assure you I’ll be first in line when it’s released here.