Filmmaker Drake Doremus is making himself a specialist in love-hate relationships, a kind of cinema couples therapist in such films as Like Crazy, Breathe In, Equals, and Newness. With his latest film — Endings, Beginnings — Doremus breaks from the couples path to home in on one character. Her name is Daphne, and she’s drifting into her thirties in Los Angeles (the ultimate place to drift) while having a love-hate relationship with herself. Don’t yawn. As played with banked fire by a terrific Shailene Woodley, Daphne earns our rooting interest.
Daphne gives herself credit (it’s not exactly love) for finally quitting a job she loathed and also quitting Adrian (Matthew Gray Gubler), her boyfriend of four years. The self-hate comes from the fact that Adrian truly cared for her and she sabotaged the relationship by cheating on him with Jed (Ben Esler). Remember Adrian and Jed, who’ll figure in shocking, left-field revelations (no spoilers) that go to Daphne’s sexual history.
So much for endings. Daphne’s new beginnings don’t exactly radiate promise. Her friend Ingrid (a fab Kyra Sedgwick) urges Daphne to take a six-month time-out from men and drinking — not a healthy combo. Her married half-sister Billie (Lindsay Sloane) offers her pool house as shelter, which only intensifies Daphne’s sense of failure. She does indifferently apply for a job as a museum curator. No skills. She just likes art.
The mood picks up at her sister’s New Year’s Eve party when two men hit on Daphne. No sex, at least not yet. No booze either, at least not yet. Just talk. Jack (Jamie Dornan) doesn’t come on strong. Get your head out of the S&M gutter just because Dornan played kink maestro Christian Grey in the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy. Jack is a teacher and an author, and he also likes art. It’s Frank (Sebastian Stan) who’s the player, gently mocking Daphne’s confession about her suffering by texting her a playlist of music for suffering. Daphne finds Frank irresistible, and he is as acted by Stan, the Winter Soldier making the most of his chance to play a badass charm boy.
Where is all this going? If you’ve been a student of Doremus since Like Crazy, with its splendid pairing of Felicity Jones and the late Anton Yelchin, you know that this director starts out with an outline of plot and then lets the actors improvise. It’s the same here as Doremus and novelist Jardine Libaire provide a springboard for Woodley, Dornan, and Stan. Think John Cassavetes meets Mike Leigh without the verbal insight; those two pioneers shaped out of deep research and rehearsal. In Endings, Beginnings, the dialogue runs to seemingly tossed-off clichés with motivations as hazy as Marianne Bakke’s cinematography.
The fact that Daphne will have conflicted sex separately with Frank and Jack — who turn out to be best buds — has the contrived ring of soap opera. Daphne’s pregnancy and lack of certainty about who’s the father add to that sudsy feeling. It’s the performances that carry the day with Woodley raising the bar in every scene. The star of the Divergent series and HBO’s Big Little Lies — who showed her acting mettle in films as diverse as The Descendants, The Spectacular Now, and The Fault in Our Stars — proves the perfect partner for Doremus in trying to trace one woman’s journey to self realization. Though the movie stalls frequently before it finds its balance, Woodley makes us care.
‘Endings, Beginnings’ releases on digital on April 17th, followed by the on-demand release on May 1st.