"When it comes to relationships, we're all beginners," says writer/director Mike Mills ("Thumbsucker"), whose real-life father, Paul, acknowledged that he was homosexual only after his wife of 45 years passed away in 1999. Five years later, his father died of lung cancer at age 79, but not before visibly blossoming into a new, far happier person.

Mills recreates the evolution of his deeply personal relationship with his father in annotated, elliptical form, seamlessly utilizing flashbacks, in this whimsical, semi-autobiographical comedic drama. Ewan McGregor plays his alter-ego, Oliver Fields, a wry, emotionally-conflicted graphic artist, while Christopher Plummer is his widower father Hal, a retired Santa Barbara art museum curator, with Mary Page Keller as Georgia, his repressed Jewish mother.

As Oliver observes the ambiguity with bewildered bemusement, gleefully out-of- the closet Hal is determined to embrace and enjoy as much of the gay lifestyle as he can in the limited time he has left, including forming a romantic attachment with much younger Andy (Goran Visnjic).

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When cancer eventually claims Hal, mourning Oliver inherits Arthur, a soulful Jack Russell terrier who understands 150 words of English and whose observant "thoughts" are subtitled. Shortly afterwards, after meeting at a costume party, Oliver embarks on a romantic relationship with a vivacious, enigmatic French actress named Anna (Melanie Laurent), whose peripatetic career periodically takes her in and out of Los Angeles. Fortunately, their emotional conflicts, particularly about the issue of commitment, seem to mesh, at least for a while.

Intelligently written, beautifully photographed and creatively challenging, due to its slow, deliberate pacing, this bittersweet, contemporary love story becomes a celebration of expressive honesty, teaching not preaching. While Ewan McGregor ("The Ghost Writer") earnestly propels the story, the most memorable performance is elegantly, exuberantly delivered by Christopher Plummer, last seen as Leo Tolstoy, adroitly romping in bed with Helen Mirren in "The Last Station." And Melanie Laurent ("Inglourious Basterds") exudes a quirky, disarming charm.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Beginners" is an inventive, enriching 8, affirming that a disarmingly personal, empathetic remembrance has universal appeal.