It takes talent and effort to take the work of a gifted cast giving their all and completely mute it, voiding it of depth and appeal, but 'Endings, Beginnings' tries its hardest to turn what could have been a salacious sex drama into a joyless love triangle.
Daphne (Shailene Woodley, TV's 'Big Little Lies') is at a crossroads in her life, having recently broken up with her long-term partner Adrian (Matthew Gray Gubler, TV's 'Criminal Minds'), quit her job and moved into her pregnant sister's (Lindsay Sloane, 'Horrible Bosses 2') pool house. Swearing off men and then alcohol, Daphne finds both pledges quickly undone when she meets suave and steady Jack (Jamie Dornan, 'Fifty Shades' trilogy) and his best friend, charismatic wildcard Frank (Sebastian Stan, 'Avengers: Endgame'), both of whom make Daphne feel alive in different ways. Cue a very torn Daphne and a string of mistakes that inevitably lead to more than one broken heart.
What's so disappointing about 'Endings, Beginnings' is how great the concept is. Based on a story by writer/director/producer Drake Doremus ('Like Crazy'), the dialogue in the film is mostly improvised. This gives way to a number of scenes where the chemistry between Woodley, Dornan and Stan feels authentic (and I'm not just talking about the steamy sex scenes), giving a cinéma vérité effect as if these are real people the camera is watching in real-time. It also creates a stark contrast between the natural improvised dialogue and the contrived one-liners from what little script Doremus provided. Admittedly, my personal experience with Dornan and Stan's filmographies is limited at best, but both give performances here that are heads and shoulders above their best-known roles. Frank's pursuit of Daphne borders on the obsessive, a character beat Dornan no doubt gave Stan pointers on after his work in 'Fifty Shades', and it's entertaining to watch Dornan play Jack as well-adjusted and driven in comparison. Woodley, on the other hand, is operating on a whole other level that appears to be the standard across her recent performances, given the herculean task here of imbuing personality to a lead character that has been given basically none. The results are mixed; Woodley makes Daphne a classic trainwreck, ping-ponging between the maturity Jack motivates her towards and the hedonistic impulsivity encouraged by Frank. You can't take your eyes off her, even as some of the film's biggest moments are laugh-out-loud cheesy thanks to the dialogue, but Woodley tries her hardest to sell them. One can't help but wonder how much the stronger the film would have been with more concrete source material.
A ridiculous amount of choppy editing only weakens the film, and 'Endings, Beginnings' should be commended for how it goes out of its way to look as ugly as possible. There is a dreamy and moody tone here that Doremus is obviously going for, using a blue-toned colour palette and a cooler-than-your-playlist indie rock soundtrack, but the film ends up coming off as pretentious instead of intoxicating. Tiny cuts between scenes are inadvertently reminiscent of beginner YouTube videos where small pauses in speech have been removed, making it impossible to take 'Endings, Beginnings' as seriously as it begs to be. One of the film's biggest moments takes this editing way too far, cutting back and forth between the palpable tension before Daphne and Frank's first kiss and Daphne announcing she's heading home, attempting to indicate that even she knows to stay would be wrong, but it completely undercuts the tension of the entire sequences.
The issues with the film's visuals don't stop there either. Text message graphics in films are often hit and miss to begin with, but 'Endings, Beginnings' is hands down one of the worst instances of this I have ever seen in a film. An artsy font slowly scrolls out letters as characters type and the three leads get a consistent font colour, which is then inexplicably laid on top of one another, and in some scenes, conversations start from the bottom of the screen and work their way up. It's a distracting effect that completely takes away attention from Woodley's face, on which the camera is typically zoomed in for these scenes as she receives and reacts to the important plot beats these texts cover. Sometimes, especially when you have such a great lead actress doing so much acting with just her face, less is more.
One can't help but wonder how much the stronger 'Endings, Beginnings' would have been with more concrete source material.
Drake Doremus' filmography reads like every romance addict's dream, having dabbled almost exclusively in the genre, but a trademark of his films is just how unbearable and selfish his characters are; without even checking his previous work, I constantly drew comparisons between 'Endings, Beginnings' and 'Like Crazy', Doremus' most popular and best-received film, in how consistently awful the leads behave, all justified in the name of love. It doesn't make for compelling cinema, but at least 'Like Crazy' gives its characters enough background for its leads to add depth. Without giving too much away, the final nail in the coffin is how 'Endings, Beginnings' attempts to provide a profound mediation on life and love, suggesting the love Daphne has always needed is not the kind she thought. Additionally, the single character detail the story gives her is a tragic one, the truth of which finally reveals itself in the final act, and the way in which Daphne is expected to face up to it is borderline insulting. The final five minutes tries to showcase Daphne's character growth as something hopeful, but the reality of her predicament is just too miserable for it to pay off effectively.
Despite committed work from its talented leads and an interesting concept, 'Endings, Beginnings' is an incredibly dull and forgettable romance. It is possible for love to be portrayed as a messy thing without pretension and selfishness, but it seems Drake Doremus is yet to figure that out.