Ending Explained is a recurring series in which we explore the finales, secrets, and themes of interesting movies and shows, both new and old. This time, we examine the ending of Amazon’s The Map of Tiny Perfect Things.
Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.
Some teenagers take a day off to appreciate the little things in life, and some teenagers wish for their day to be in an ever-repeating time-loop so they can stop and smell the roses again and again and again. Oh, and also to avoid saying goodbye to their dying mother. The Map of Tiny Perfect Things is about the latter, a girl genius who not only knows how to draw the fourth dimension but also how to manipulate it. Yet the movie follows a different teenager, a nerdy boy who likes to draw more-literal pictures and who never comes to realize that he’s also being manipulated.
As with any time-loop movie, the objective for the character(s) stuck in the repeating day is to find the key out of their prison. Typically, that objective involves finding love, and ever since the rom-com framing of Groundhog Day, there’s been a problematic aspect of these movies because of the way the main character with free will and awareness of life being paused is able to cheat in their romantic pursuit of someone who doesn’t. Palm Springs got away from that in a way by having both characters aware. The Map of Tiny Perfect Things returns to it despite having the same situation.
Margaret (Kathryn Newton) reveals in the final moments of the movie that she may have caused the time-loop by wishing for tomorrow never to come, meaning her terminal-cancer-stricken mother would continue to live. So why is Mark (Kyle Allen) also conscious of her wish when nobody else is? While not her doing necessarily — not like the active forced-hand of Chris Pratt waking Jennifer Lawrence from hibernation while in space in Passengers — Mark seems to be chosen by the universe to be Margaret’s companion on the desert island metaphor of their ever-repeating day.
Why was he chosen? Were they fated to be together, or like two castaways were they just randomly paired together? Does he only love her because they’ve spent so much time together with a shared experience, and vice versa? Like most rom-com characters, they’re non-complex and easily matched. And while he appears to be the x that marks the spot on the four-dimensional treasure map, he’s not a tiny perfect thing, nor is love, which is more likely the final puzzle piece that unlocks the timestream. You can’t equate it with a predatory bird grabbing simply its latest fish meal.
It’s also a sign of dependency that the universe (or, if there are fourth-dimensional beings controlling us all, like a simulation of reality, which Mark does bring up to his math teacher of all people as a possibility) is allowing for with Margaret. To escape her wish, she must say goodbye to her mother and welcome in a new person to love and be by her side. I know, it’s more that she’s supposed to be open to the possibility of a new life with someone else, but it certainly plays as though she’s not meant to just be strong on her own in her acceptance of her mother’s death.
Meanwhile, Mark, despite being the primary character of the movie, hasn’t really had any agency of his own. He thinks he’s the center of the universe, and he’s not even the center of his. He thinks he can break out of the time-loop by changing and becoming more interested in other people’s lives, but that’s all just a lead-up to his realization that this story is someone else’s. He can’t get out of the day until Margaret unlocks the loop, and he’s only there because she wished for it and he was thrown into it with her. He has no more free will than Andie MacDowell does in Groundhog Day.
Here’s a final question I have for the movie’s story: had Margaret ever seen and just not noticed or appreciated Mark before? Had she seen him and thought he was cute but didn’t ever act on the crush? Had she subconsciously willed him to be in the loop with her and then teased (with the interception of the beach ball moment) yet then also tried to keep a distance from him afterward because she was scared of forming new relationships at a time when she’s in preemptive mourning for the person she cares about the most? We’ll never know, but it’s a theory worth contemplating.
Of course, as with any rom-com, The Map of Tiny Perfect Things could just be an innocent — or ignorantly problematic — superficial love story, just one with a more gimmicky speculative fiction premise and a script that sounds like it’s scientifically and philosophically deep. But it’s from the same director who gave us Sierra Burgess is Not a Loser with its minor but still noteworthy romantic con artist consent issues. Just like life, ninety-minute movies move pretty fast, and if you don’t stop and look around at the details, you could miss the ways in which they’re more (good or bad) than they seem.
For a different take on the movie, check out Rob Hunter’s review of The Map of Tiny Perfect Things.