Fittingly, Drake Doremus‘s Endings, Beginnings begins with an ending. Daphne (Shailene Woodley) is reeling from a breakup. Her four-year-long relationship has come to a close and she isn’t quite sure how to navigate the new normal of being single. She moves into her sister’s poolhouse and tries to adapt to the circumstances. She swears off relationships and pledges sobriety. She starts doing yoga. It’s the type of cinematic “fresh start” that we’ve seen before. Obviously, it doesn’t last long.
At a New Year’s Eve party, she meets both Jack (Jamie Dornan) and Frank (Sebastian Stan) and clicks with each of them. A few dates later, she finds herself with two relationship saplings and can’t decide which should be watered. While Jack is more mature and even-tempered, Frank is acerbic and adventurous. With this set up and a poppy lo-fi soundtrack accompanying softly-lit visuals, Endings, Beginnings has all the expected trappings of a naturalistic indie romantic drama.
Doremus, who is best known for his similarly bittersweet romance Like Crazy, doesn’t shake his formula up here, and his willingness to not reach deeper is both understandable and frustrating. Endings, Beginnings is a film that knows what it is and reliably fulfills its premise without delivering many surprises along the way. The film has its fair share of romantic cliches, but they are made palatable by strong performances from the cast.
Woodley has played roles like Daphne before, namely in The Spectacular Now and The Fault in Our Stars, but this time she’s working with similar struggles as a woman rather than as a teenage girl. She again is able to find humility in a character aching for stability but inexplicably drawn towards recklessness. Daphne’s aimlessness isn’t always captivating, yet the more lackluster moments are helped by the actress’s presence.
As for the two male leads, Dornan’s performance is more than serviceable, but Stan is the one who really excels. He knows how to slip between endearing and smarmy effortlessly and, despite playing the least developed of the three main characters, his slick charm makes him the most memorable.
The low-key stakes of Endings, Beginnings allow the performances to shine, but the film too often rests when it could pursue. Daphne initially plans to refrain from drinking for six months. This plot point leads to some genuinely insightful encounters when she is with those who are drinking and has to awkwardly explain why she isn’t. Though her sobriety is never insignificant in the narrative, it is pushed more towards the periphery as the plot progresses. As a result, Daphne’s complexity is never fully fleshed out.
The film starts to meander in the second act as scenes rehash the premise of Daphne being drawn towards both men and not knowing which is best for her or whether she should even be in a relationship at all. As narrative depth is eschewed in favor of aesthetics and emotional resonance, it’s especially important that the film is at least beautifully and skillfully made.
The languid, handheld cinematography by Marianne Bakke renders the film consistently tender and inviting as it envelopes us in its world of bittersweet romances and fleeting intimate moments. Notably, the film’s sex scenes are captured with care, at once steamy and gentle, explicit but never exploitative, and refreshingly realistic.
Though the film doesn’t have an inventive narrative spark to propel it forward, those drawn to the film for its promise of heartfelt dramatics will discover some rewards. At its best, Endings, Beginnings, provides a genuinely meditative perspective on Daphne’s restlessness, and it has an emotional rhythm that picks up the slack of its predictable narrative beats. Doremus might not be trying to reinvent the wheel when it comes to romantic dramas, but he does a serviceable job of letting it roll on at its own pace.
Endings, Beginnings releases on digital on April 17th and on VOD on May 1st.