La La Land: a dazzling symphony of human emotion, delightful harmonies, and picture-perfect 50’s pastels. What’s not to love between Emma Stone’s ordinary-face-meets-extraordinary-soul and Ryan Gosling’s swoon-worthy jazz playing? It’s a heart-stealing masterpiece and it’s taking the country by a storm. Yet despite this, I have heard quite a few people express confusion (or outright dismay) at the ending. I believe this is because they do not understand it, as I firmly hold that it is precisely the film’s ending which makes the film so poignant and furthermore so true.
You see, if one doesn’t know that the film has a Casablanca ending (and really, you should know this ahead of time! Warning: real spoilers ahead!), you go in expecting Oklahoma! and the couple riding off into the sunset at the end and instead get a rhapsody of regret and you’re left being like, “Yo-wait!?!! So they don’t have each other but they have their careers and this is a happy ending?”
No. It’s not a happy ending. But it’s the right ending for the film.
The film isn’t about careers, it’s about choices, the consequences of our actions, and how we choose to live. Throughout the entire time we’re watching two ways to live contrasted—a train-wreck in slow motion.
It starts with Sebastian. Sebastian is running from commitment. As his sister complains in an opening scene: he’s not really living. He’s neither following after love nor his passions: he has a STOOL which he won’t even sit on.
Mia, in contrast, is SEIZING life. She putting herself out there for rejection over and over and over and refusing to grow cynical.
What happens when the two cross paths? You’d think Sebastian’s initial responses to her would serve as a warning: rude honking, blowing her off, running away (see the amazing “He Ran” scene), even physically knocking her aside with a brush of the shoulder.
Then, thanks to Mia’s direct intervention, something happens. Despite a “wasted” evening in the moonlight—they do in fact connect. Sebastian starts reaching out—and a relationship begins.
But Sebastian hasn’t actually changed.
The second half of the film is watching everything fall apart. But what destroys their relationship is not one of them choosing a career but rather one of them NOT choosing the other. In their breakup scene, Sebastian reveals he has been using Mia as an excuse not to do what he loves. But what astounds Mia most is that he has CHOSEN a life in which they cannot be together: there is no marriage, no children, no togetherness in sight. Sebastian is choosing a life without her… WHILE blaming her for the choice as if it’s for her that he’s given up his dreams. Mia suddenly sees his pattern of selfishness, his cowardice, and, in short, his complete BS.
So what about the ending? In the final montage, we see what would have happened had Sebastian made the right choices. Notice, neither of their careers change: in both Mia goes to Paris and Sebastian starts a club. Furthermore, notice, Mia’s life doesn’t change–either way she would have been a gorgeous pregnant lady with an adorable child and a wonderful husband. It is Sebastian’s story which could have been the most different.
As the scenes flash before us, we see every wrong decision reversed: Sebastian NOT brushing Mia aside, NOT joining the awful band, BEING THERE for her audition, FOLLOWING her to Paris, STARTING his club, getting down on one knee and proposing, and yes, babies and date-nights and them together. The montage shows us how EASILY Mia’s marriage could have been with HIM, how that beautiful baby back home could have been THEIRS, how the date to the club could have been TOGETHER.
A series of choices, all in which Sebastian chooses Mia. Notice they don’t have Mia change anything. Mia did everything right, she put herself out there, she left that dinner table and MADE it to that date—and in the end she found a man who was willing to commit. You feel her sadness for Sebastian, perhaps regret for what might have been, but she walks out of that club. She doesn’t return to Sebastian like he’s some kind of long-lost soul-mate (true or not): life has gone on. She smiles at him and then walks away. I think several things are going on here: I think Mia knows she made the right choice. I think she also values all that they taught one another, and furthermore I think we see that Sebastian realizes where he went wrong. He is filled with regret. But he also got a wake-up call, and he’s finally started his jazz club. And this is what makes La La Land such a good film. You have Sebastian living his dream yet deeply unhappy and then you have Mia who’s moved on with her life. You don’t actually want her to be with Sebastian. Sebastian didn’t choose her—and Mia chose LIFE, life with scary auditions, a husband, babies, diapers, babysitters, and all that jazz (ok, maybe no literal jazz for Mia). But we see what might have been: and it would have been beautiful.
How easily life could have been different.
When my husband and I see a film like La La Land, we hold each other close, because we know the pain of choosing “no,” and we know how close we came to not choosing YES. My husband and I spent years side-stepping romance. Sometimes it was in small ways—ruining what might be a romantic moment—other times it was a much clearer decision, a “no” and another “no”—if not verbally spoken, proclaimed in a choice.
What turned us around, in addition to the Lord using the circumstances of our lives, was a few very ordinary things. An email. A letter. A phone-call. A visit. A few simple actions that launched a chain of events which has led to our present happiness and years of marriage.
La La Land is a beautiful tribute to love: and a warning to those who don’t seize it. Life goes on. It doesn’t stop for you. You can have the love of your life staring you in the face and you can choose to say no. And guess what? Life will still go on. I love how it is no single choice of Sebastian’s that ends their relationship: it is a habit of being. And that’s what the film is telling you, too: it is never too late to start making the right choices and embracing life in all its fullness now.
So choose to love. Love is always a choice. It is a choice in marriage when I cook my husband his favorite cookies, or when he goes 10 minutes out of his way just to see me sooner. It is a choice when you keep back hurtful words and choose words of grace: when you honor instead of malign, when you choose time together over time apart. It is a choice every single day.
So realize that this is your life: right now. This is your La La Land.
And Life is made up of the choices you make.