Beginners is a very persuasive film, largely due to nuanced performances—and that includes the charming Jack Russell terrier who plays Arthur, a four-legged grief counselor (via subtitles).

Unlikely as it sounds, director Mike Mills weaves all of these emotional storylines together—and anthropomorphizes a canine—without stumbling into sentimentality or emotional manipulation.

It feels true, lived-in, every single moment.

When I met Mills and his leading man, Ewan McGregor, at the Seattle International Film Festival, Mills said that he’d given his actors a challenge. “I remember saying, ‘Help me not make this a narcissistic, self-pitying, sentimental memoir.’ I love films that are naturalistic and organic, when you feel the truth of life is in there somewhere.”

The cast responded. And the film is wonderful.

You can read my full review, including more from my conversation with director Mike Mills and star Ewan McGregor, at Image’s blog, Good Letters.