'Endings, Beginnings': Film Review | TIFF 2019

False advertising, and there’s no middle either.

Shailene Woodley stars as an emotionally adrift young woman torn between Sebastian Stan's frisky bad boy and his bookish buddy, played by Jamie Dornan, in Drake Doremus' latest romantic drama.

The thing about people who work hard at being cool is they're usually pretty tiresome to be around. That applies to just about everyone in Drake Doremus' wilted kale salad of a movie, Endings, Beginnings. This ponderous, semi-improvised self-realization exercise casts Shailene Woodley as an artsy young woman coming off a bad breakup when she drifts into a triangle with two friends played by Jamie Dornan and Sebastian Stan. These guys are instantly distinguishable by their beards — one has the bushy facial hair that indicates intellect and sensitivity, the other spells trouble with his bad-ass stubble.

Aside from the relatively high-concept sci-fi detours of 2015's Equals and Zoe three years later, Doremus has been working the same signature canvas of expansive emotional intimacy ever since his breakthrough Sundance winner, Like Crazy, in 2012. That film told a simple, familiar story of intoxicating amour slamming into seemingly insurmountable obstacles, but the alchemical reaction sparked by the two leads, Felicity Jones and Anton Yelchin, gave it a certain freshness.

No such magic elevates the stubbornly wan new film, which was developed from a basic outline with backstories, written by Doremus with novelist Jardine Libaire; the actors collaborated to flesh out their own characters and dialogue. But Doremus is no Mike Leigh, whose process involves extended rehearsal periods of improvisation and experimentation to refine characters and storylines. And on the evidence of their soporific dialogue here, Woodley, Dornan and Stan are not going to cause Aaron Sorkin any sleepless nights.

Daphne (Woodley) is reeling from the end of a four-year relationship with Adrian (Matthew Gray Gubler). She was convinced he was "the one," but seems to have sabotaged that hope with a one-night stand with Jed (Ben Esler), which caused her also to abruptly quit her job. While figuring out what's next, she moves back into the pool house of her married half-sister Billie (Lindsay Sloane), seemingly not for the first time. Her older friend and confidante, Ingrid (Kyra Sedgwick), suggests she take a break and spend some time alone. "That's terrifying," deadpans Daphne, though she pledges to herself to take a six-month sabbatical from drinking and men, determined to break the messy pattern of her emotional life.

That vow starts looking shaky at Billie's New Year's Eve party, where Daphne first meets Frank (Stan) over cigarettes and insufferable (though not to either of them) small talk, and then writer-teacher Jack (Dornan), whose Irish accent and academic credentials give him more substance. Frank comes on strong, sending her flirty texts and a Spotify playlist of "Music to Suffer To." (This plays right into Doremus' hands, since he never met a montage or a wispy indie-rock underlay he didn't like.) Jack is more conventional in his approach, inviting her to watch him drink while she consumes a non-alcoholic beverage.

The discovery that Frank and Jack are buddies causes both Daphne and the guys to step back for fear of driving a wedge into their friendship. But the casual talk about fear of emotion, and passion being left by the roadside on the way out of one's early 20s seems just a formality to stall Daphne's inevitable tumble into bed with both men. (One at a time, natch, since Doremus' oeuvre is strictly heteronormative.) Her commitment initially is to grounded Jack, but sexy, unpredictable bad boy Frank's invitation to join him on a Big Sur road trip proves hard to resist. Evidently, Daphne has never seen a movie, because she's surprised when a pregnancy test proves positive, with no clues about the baby's paternity.

While Doremus' fixation on the complexities of modern love makes you wonder if anything formative ever happened to him outside the bedroom, he does at least try to get beyond that here by focusing on a character gradually learning to make choices not driven by head-spinning romance.

Daphne tends to blame the example of her mother (Wendie Malick) for her tendency to move from guy to guy, making impulsive decisions and hurting people along the way. But she's still a woefully underdeveloped character. We watch her play pinball, hand-paint old teapots, babysit her adorable niece or exchange meaningful looks with Jack's cute corgi. She's a post-Time's Up inversion of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl; she exists to allow the writer-director, somewhat patronizingly, to show unmoored young women how to love themselves, flaws and all, and take control of their lives.

The truth is that Daphne is a snooze, despite Woodley's best efforts to breathe some dimension into her via one sleepy self-exploration scene after another, most of it suffused by cinematographer Marianne Bakke in a dreamy haze and fragmented in restless jump cuts.

The movie aims to make Daphne's journey raw and real, but mostly it's just insipid. Dornan comes closest to creating a potentially interesting character, and his scenes of emotional reckoning with Daphne have a hint of genuine feeling. But the moment that resonates most is a late exchange with her mother, nicely played by Malick, in which the older woman's acknowledgment of her own often fumbling attempts to find stability represent an outstretched hand of solidarity that strengthens Daphne's resolve to forge an independent path forward.

Production companies: CJ Entertainment, Protagonist Pictures
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Jamie Dornan, Sebastian Stan, Matthew Gray Gubler, Lindsay Sloane, Shamier Anderson, Lawrence Rothman, Sherry Cola, Wendie Malick, Kyra Sedgwick, Ben Esler
Director: Drake Doremus
Screenwriters: Drake Doremus, Jardine Libaire
Producers: Francis Chung, Robert George, Drake Doremus
Executive producer: Miky Lee, Jerry Kyoungbourn Ko
Director of photography: Marianne Bakke
Production designer: Almitra Corey
Costume designer: Christie Wittenborn
Music: Philip Ekstrom
Editor: Garret Price
Casting: Eyde Belasco
Sales: UTA, CJ Entertainment, Protagonist Pictures
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations)

110 minutes