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SUNDANCE REVIEW: ‘The End of Love’ Is Mark Webber’s Flawed But Heartfelt Ode to Parenthood

SUNDANCE REVIEW: 'The End of Love' Is Mark Webber's Flawed But Heartfelt Ode to Parenthood

Mark Webber’s “The End of Love” is a kind of therapy for its director. Loosely based on the filmmaker’s life, the movie stars Webber (an actor whose credits include “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”) alongside his real-life toddler, Isaac, and explores the challenges of his single-parent household. Intimately shot and almost exclusively focused on the two characters’ daily lives, “The End of Love” maintains an effectively bittersweet atmosphere that works its quiet spell throughout, although it aims too low to leave a particularly strong impression.

A far cry from “Explicit Ills,” Webber’s impressive ensemble piece that served as his directorial debut, “The End of Love” presents a warm depiction of father-son relations that provides the microbudget alternative to “The Pursuit of Happyness,” where Will Smith and son Jaden riffed on their own real-life chemistry. Webber pulls off a far more impressive feat by making the hyperactive and consistently distracted Isaac react on cue. It might be one of the most controlled child performances ever put onscreen, partly because the director stays so close to him every scene.

Their moments together give “The End of Love” a wonderfully naturalistic appeal, but the story can’t keep up. In a somewhat awkward riff on the truth, Webber imagines his situation as the result of his wife’s death shortly after she gave birth to Isaac. In reality, no death took place, but Webber did split up with Isaac’s mother. That backdrop adds a somewhat unsettling subtext to the rest of the movie, since it otherwise maintains a basis in reality: Webber plays himself and hangs with known actors who use their real names.

Cameos by Michael Cera and Amanda Seyfried flesh out the blurry line between fiction and documentary, but the overall smallness of Webber’s approach turns “The End of Love” into something closer to a diary film than a conventional narrative. And so it becomes easy to read his wife’s “death” as an allegory for the actual incident, explaining the introverted quality of Webber’s filmmaking.

However, while his understated approach leaves much to interpretation, it never builds out its basic situation to any meaningful payoff. Most scenes are predominantly composed of Webber and his son engaged in daily rituals, from a messy morning breakfast to an ill-conceived audition ruined by Isaac’s constant interruptions. A tangent involving Webber’s attempt to launch a relationship with a new woman (Jocelin Donahue) goes nowhere, as does a prolonged sequence in which Webber attends a Cera-hosted party.

Stumbling drunkenly around his famous friend’s abode, Webber’s self-portrait turns into an underwhelming vanity party, providing a reminder of the comparative strength of the scenes he shares with his son. Never fully realized, “The End of Love” is both hard to dislike and difficult to invest in. There are powerful ingredients here, certainly enough to create a deeply felt work, but “The End of Love” lacks the additional layers of storytelling necessary for Webber to make the audience feel as close to the material as he does to his son.

Criticwire grade: B-

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Too small-scale and quiet for any kind of mass release, “The End of Love” will probably find welcome audiences along the festival circuit before landing a very small theatrical buy, although it could broaden its reach with a digital release.

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