ENDINGS, BEGINNINGS— 4 STARS
LESSON #1: LIFE IS MESSY— There’s no simpler way to say this right up front. There is no softer trade of “can be” to replace the “is” in that short statement either. It just is, and we’re not talking about dirty dishes or unfolded laundry. The real mess is internal. Emotions and, most of all within that realm, love is messy. Many folks drift and exist hoping to have more peaks than valleys when it comes to their ever-present mire.
Granted, messy people and their messy lives make for messy stories, especially here in the medium of narrative film. Not everyone can hold their noses to other peoples’ messes on display. Their pity or empathy levels have limits. Tolerance comes from the talent and the trueness coming together for the given story. Filmmaker Drake Doremus of Like Crazy fame is no stranger to this wavelength of wavering wisdom. He presents another striking, bare, and brave movie in the form of Endings, Beginnings available on VOD platforms on April 17th. If you have the capacity to wallow along, you will be impressed. Plenty won’t and that’s too bad.
Shailene Woodley’s central character Daphne is one of those uneasy people. She is lost in the fog of a valley she finds herself currently in after a breakup. As the title suggests, Daphne is emerging from an off-screen romantic ending with Adrian (Matthew Gray Gluber, seen in fleeting flashbacks of former excesses), whom she considered the love of her life.
LESSON #2: ENDING A ROMANCE IS MESSY— We don’t have to see the event to evaluate the mess for Daphne. Whatever happened sapped strength, confidence, and will, enough to make living alone a difficult proposition. Woodley’s bangs and body language of living within the skin of sorrow as this struggling Los Angeles artist tells it all. Smiles are brief and temporary covers to sadness that lets loose later. Stares are packed with pensive pause not a quicksand of laziness. Trinkets, possessions, and settings trigger memories of painful mistakes.
To push through the wake of this ending, Daphne starts a path of sobriety, but is jobless and moves into her pregnant sister Billie’s (TV regular Lindsay Sloane) guesthouse to play the cool aunt for her niece. She attends a still-life painting club that provides senior wisdom from Ingrid, played by a welcome Kyra Sedgwick. The club and the cold-calling for gallery jobs shows Daphne’s drive to not extinguish her creative passion.
Alas, different sparks bring light to Daphne’s haze in the form of two prospective suitors she meets at one of her sister’s parties. The first is Jamie Dornan’s composed and successful writer Jack. The other one of Jack’s good friends, the riskier smoldering crass of Frank, played by Sebastian Stan. This is a lively switch of stereotypes for both performers where the Marvel hero gets to play the fatalist and the naughty Fifty Shades of Grey heartthrob goes nice and safe.
LESSON #3: BEGINNING A ROMANCE IS MESSY— Daphne is a magnet for both men and melancholy. She admits that she is terrified of being alone, however solitude is what she needs to clear her personal clouds. Daphne clicks with both men in different ways, yet this counts as adding turmoil, especially if it multiplies.
LESSON #4: DON’T KEEP TWO LOVERS AT THE SAME TIME— This is especially true if they are longtime friends and lies are involved. The human pair of potential turning points represented by Frank and Jack merge within a year of Daphne’s life and bring out good and bad versions of everyone’s personalities. The scale may be small, but their true-to-self mistakes are stiff ones.
The ambiance of this film constricts any hint of wider sweep to make this journey a bigger drama than it needs to be. The intimacy is paramount in every layer of cinematographer Marianne Bakke’s presentation. The lighting is muted with grays to match Daphne’s fog. The rear tracking and close-up, probing camera choices hide the bodily fidgets to emphasize the faces and voices giving them away anyway. Shot often through foreground fringes of sets and surroundings gave Ending, Beginnings an engaging voyeuristic feel to the muddled dilemmas in action. Music supervisor Chris Douridas floats all of this to a hefty soundtrack of pulsing electronic pop.
The level of raw unpredictability of this love triangle scripted by Doremus and debuting writer Jardine Libaire is a lift from the previous flatness of the director’s recent work in the cold genre of science fiction (Equals, Zoe). The drive for human connection versus jadedness feels so much more tangible, emotional wreckage and all. Doremus has more vibrant performers here and their presence elevates the melodramatic material, much of which was semi-improvisational. Someone needs to send this movie to Terrence Malick to show the lauded filmmaker what that performance style really looks like done in an economical and effective way.
With that liberating looseness, the character work is strong. Both male leads get to stretch their ranges playing against type, but none in Endings, Beginnings are better than Shailene Woodley. In one moment, her Daphne drags cigarettes through self-deprecating dialogue and in the next she’s heart-punching us with a serenade of R.E.M. The Golden Globe and Emmy nominee has long shown a certain niche of frazzle that is unmatched by her peers and she continues to mature as a performer. Shailene has the uncanny ability of balancing bruised burdens with infinitely levitating allure. She’s the reason to see this movie.