Film Review – Endings, Beginnings
Endings, Beginnings (2020) has the look and feel of one of those indie dramas that explore deep human stories. It has a free floating, spontaneous tone and is backed by a cool soundtrack that operates like a playlist you would give your junior high crush. But when we look a little bit closer, we find that outer shell hides a fairly conventional romantic drama – one that isn’t profound or enlightening, but shallow and mundane. And while the actors give their all in their respective roles, there’s only so much they can do with material this thin.
Daphne (Shailene Woodley) is going through a small quarter life crisis. She just got out of a relationship, quit her job in art curation, and is currently living in her sister’s pool house. Getting her life back on track has proven difficult, every job she has applied for has turned her down. In an attempt to gain some personal control, Daphne has vowed to abstain from vices such as alcohol and romantic relationships. Guess how long she manages to stick to that plan?
As soon as Daphne declares to refrain from sex and booze, she gets immediately tempted during her sister’s New Year’s party. There, she meets Frank (Sebastian Stan), a hunky guy with charm to spare. They exchange flirtations, and for a minute we start to think that something substantial can come from this encounter. That is, until she meets Jack (Jamie Dornan) and the exact same party. Jack is a hunky guy with charm to spare, and who’s intelligence draws Daphne to him. This is in contrast to Frank, who seems more emotionally passionate, free-wheeling, and unpredictable. Things get even more complicated when Daphne discovers that Frank and Jack are best friends.
This love triangle is a classic romantic melodrama set up. The term “melodrama” can sometimes play as a cinematic dirty word – something that automatically causes audiences to react in a negative fashion. I don’t subscribe to this philosophy, as love stories always have the potential to be great when done right. But the issue with Endings, Beginnings is that the writing (Jardine Libaire, Drake Doremus) and direction (Doremus) never takes the dynamic between these three people and elevate it beyond recycled tropes. It walks and talks as if it provides a fresh new take, but as we move away from Daphne trying to strengthen her own identity and more toward a “who will she choose?” conflict, the desire to stick with the narrative dissipates quickly.
Maybe it has something to do with how repetitive things get as we move into the second and third acts. The interactions remain mostly the same: we watch as Daphne builds some sort of stability with Jack or Frank, only for circumstances to separate them, causing her to turn to the other. This (of course) is not a good idea, with the temptation being so strong that a few minutes of conversation is all that’s needed for Daphne and the current guy she’s with to get into each other’s pants. Revelations are made that provide a reason for why Daphne creates her own personal chaos, but those sequences felt like cheap narrative ploys. The connection between her troubled past and her troubled present isn’t established well enough and is almost entirely ignored in the second half.
It also doesn’t help that Endings, Beginnings has a bland visual palette and nervy, erratic editing style. Colors are washed out, creating a downbeat, depressing aesthetic. Scenes are underlit to the point that simple conversations look like they take place in near darkness. The entire movie appears to be photographed with a shallow depth of field, with backgrounds blurred out to indecipherable levels. The editing jumps back and forth in time constantly, with Daphne providing narration as context. This approach is not necessarily a bad thing, but the problem is that it’s the only thing.
There is little to no variation to the visual storytelling. Shailene Woodley is shot almost always on the right side of the screen looking left towards another character. Often, we see her walking through a scene in the midground with an object or person blurred out in the foreground, partially obscuring our view of her. Maybe this is supposed to give the sense that we are “peeking” into Daphne’s life, but does it have to occur every other moment? In fact, the only interesting visual element is the onscreen texts we see between Daphne and the guys. If text messages are the most appealing thing about the look of a film, that is a problem.
Throughout the duration of Endings, Beginnings, I kept hoping that it would improve. Sadly, it never does. Shailene Woodley, Jamie Dornan, and Sebastian Stan are all solid performers, and it’s a shame to see them forced to be such morose characters.