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Given the title, it's entirely appropriate that Mike Mills' second feature film "Beginners" is set to open the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival, on the evening of April 21st. It's a privileged position for a film that already boasts big name actors such as Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor. But for all the bombast, "Beginners" is a quiet and subtle story about a lonely man, his dying father and their adorable Jack Russell Terrier.

Hal (Plummer) has been married for 45 years, but when his wife dies in 2003, everything changes. Hal's been gay the whole time, which comes as a shock to his perpetually melancholy son, Oliver (McGregor). But the film doesn't linger on this revelation for long; Hal also has cancer. It's a tragedy that director Mike Mills knows all too well: He wrote the film based on his experiences with his own father, who died after only four years of being out and comfortable with his homosexuality.

Because of this personal touch, the film thrives in capturing both the heartbreaking and humorous moments of Hal and Oliver's private lives. Told in a non-linear structure, the story offers glimpses of these men's highest and lowest points: Hal finds a boyfriend, Oliver watches his father die. Mills has an eye for these delicate episodes and even though dialogue is sparse, the film makes up for it with its refreshing artistic vision. There are original drawings, slideshows and a dog that speaks in subtitles - all of which are playfully charming alongside Plummer's particularly enchanting performance.

"Beginners" opens with a death. But instead of being steeped in sorrow, the prospect of death creates a film that revels in the joy of life.

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