ENDINGS, BEGINNINGS Finishes Before it Starts

Round and around we go.

One look at the trailer for Endings, Beginnings and it’s clear what kind of movie it’s trying to be. Co-writer/director Drake Doremus’ modest recent effort has goals of being an insight into the emotionally damaged and romantically conflicted mind of the Southern California woman as she wrestles with both her very real and immediate future. This is the kind of valid premise which should lead to the kind of rich storytelling that proves relatable and poignant. However Endings, Beginnings gets carried away by a visual style, a need to constantly establish a sense of place and a protagonist more prone to daydreaming and snacking than making any kind of real grown-up choices regarding the present state of her life.

In Endings, Beginnings, 20-something Daphne (Shailene Woodley), a beautiful and thoughtful young woman who has been forced to move into her half-sister’s (Lindsay Sloane) pool house following the end of a long-term relationship. At a New Year’s party shortly after, Daphne meets Frank (Sebastian Stan) and Jack (Jamie Dornan); two men whom she finds attractive and both of whom feel the same way about her. The two guys are as night and day as can be. Frank is a carefree pseudo-bohemian, while Jack is a university professor who is sensitive and sober. Both men also happen to be longtime friends. As each man’s interest in Daphne grows, so does her confusion regarding which one she wants to be with.

It always hurts a little when any indie feature is anything less than what it could be, especially given how hard it is to make small films about real people these days. Because of this, watching as Endings, Beginnings indulges in one cliche after another in an effort to tell Daphne’s story is as tragic as it is a chore. The Southern California setting (along with every kind of SoCal touch you can think of) is relentlessly shoved down the audience’s throats. Almost all of Daphne’s life post-breakup is defined more by the kind of idealized L.A. lifestyle than by anything resembling a real person dealing with the loss of a relationship. Daphne does yoga with her half-sister by the pool, she meets up with a group of friends who congregate weekly to paint still life and one scene even has her sitting with a group of L.A. hippies in an old house singing “Losing My Religion.” Even the guys themselves live lives which are influenced by the movie’s settings. Frank is an artist, while Jack is an aspiring writer dreaming of a fellowship in Italy (of course he is). Meanwhile, the movie’s editing tries to reflect the loose Cali setting with its light blue tint and voice over narration competing with silent closeups of the character who is speaking. A never ending collection of vintage clothes, eclectic side characters, boutique second-hand stores, dive bars and Daphne’s eternally tousled hair all add to the world these people belong to, but not much else.

The biggest misstep about Endings, Beginnings is the fact that we never get a true sense of who the people in it really are. Daphne spends half the film eating and staring into space like a zombie. This eventually becomes absurd as every other scene seems to feature her shoving food into her mouth, as if trying to make up for the fact that the script has given her nothing to say that’s of any real consequence. Even her background is hinted at more than explored, as the film favors edgy visual cuts over characters actually talking for more than a couple of minutes at a time. Frank and Jack fare no better in the area of character development. Neither guy is on the screen long enough to actually establish who they are beyond half-baked characteristics and a collection of sex scenes. True, a lot about Endings, Beginnings was meant to focus on the state of mind of a young woman at an emotional impasse trying to work out where her life should go. But not much of that is shown. What is shown are characters either pretending or hiding, but never really talking. This may be just as well since when the script does clear its throat to say something, it’s usually a piece of “wisdom” which feels trite and uninspired such as one of Daphne’s later musings in which she states: “Everything might not be okay; but that’s ok.”

Not to name names, but there are plenty of beautiful, stunning actresses out there who can’t act worth a damn, yet possess the ability to stare off into space in a mesmerizing way. Any one of them would have been a wiser choice than Woodley. The actress has more than shown she can carry the heaviest of material, but here the lack of depth within Endings, Beginnings leaves her lost and results in her most stilted performance to date. As the guys, Stan and Dornan do no better, but at least manage enough natural sparks with their leading lady so that their scenes do contain some degree of watchability. Kyra Sedgwick turns up as one of Daphne’s artist friends, which results in the movie’s most nuanced performance (despite being its most unnecessary character) as a California woman who has seen it all and sitcom veteran Wendie Malick is a great surprise in a straight dramatic role as Woodley’s mother who has come to terms with her own regrets.

Here’s the thing: you can make allowances for a character’s shortcomings, but you can only make them so long. Eventually, the benefit of the doubt runs its course and our heroine has to make a firm choice, which Daphne never really does. There were numerous times I went back to the old critics’ theory about whether or not watching a film’s cast members having lunch together would be more interesting that seeing them act in the movie they’re in. Here, it’s easy to imagine the three leads praise and then eventually bemoan the franchises which helped make them all names. Couldn’t you picture Woodley talking about how happy she was when the Divergent series ended, Stan dishing the dirt he’s got on his Marvel co-stars and Dornan admit that the 50 Shades movies are actually the crap most people believe them to be? At least that imagined experience would come with a resolution of sorts, which is more than we ever get here.

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