Early in Drake Doremus’ “Endings, Beginnings,” leading lady Daphne (Shailene Woodley) makes a comment to a potential paramour about feeling as if she’s being called to do things a twenty-something might do, like travel the world or join up with the Peace Corps, youthful diversions that a thirty-something like her has no business dabbling in anymore. But it’s all the other things that Daphne spends the film dabbling in — from living in her put-together sister’s guest house or looking for a job when she has no definable skills or even, as is often the crux of a Doremus feature, engaging in dangerous and immature relationships with unsuitable partners — that make it clear which parts of her are stuck in a life she should have stopped living a decade ago.
But is that ever going to change? Doremus’ films, from the sublime “Like Crazy” and “Breathe” to the ridiculous “Newness” and “Zoe,” have long tracked modern love to an obsessive (and typically unflattering) degree. Now armed with Woodley, a fitting muse for Doremus, who has not had a performer this suited for his material than his late “Like Crazy” star Anton Yelchin, the filmmaker has begun to move away from couple-centric stories into something more firmly focused on one enthralling character.
Daphne shouldn’t be this captivating, but with Woodley’s vulnerability and full-scale charm backing her up, “Endings, Beginnings” is able to capitalize on a seemingly thin premise. Woodley is even strong enough to heave the film through some final-act revelations that teeter between the satisfying and the woefully unnecessary, stuff that hinges on bigger questions and issues than just “hey, growing up, it’s hard, right?” While Doremus (and his co-writer, first-time screenwriter Jardine Libaire) don’t stick the landing, there’s more foundational work being laid throughout the film than previously expected.
First, however, there is a heartbroken Daphne. The film opens with a distraught Woodley arriving at said put-together sister’s (Lindsay Sloane) house without a place to live, without a job, and without a partner. It does not appear to be the first time Daphne has gate-crashed her sister and brother-in-law’s happy existence, but “Endings, Beginnings” eventually makes the case that it might actually be the last. It’s clear that something horrible has happened to Daphne, but Doremus and Libaire skirt around the real issues (perhaps for too long to give them a true impact), instead leaning on what we do know: Daphne has nothing, and it seems to be of her own making.
At a cheery New Year’s Eve party (endings! beginnings!), Daphne meets two (allegedly very different, but both the requisite level of movie-star handsome) new men: the rangy and sexy Frank (Sebastian Stan) and the more bookish Jack (Jamie Dornan). Despite — or, hell, maybe even because of — Daphne’s obvious heartbreak, neither of them can resist her. While she’s made a weak promise to herself (and her older best pal, played by a very welcome Kyra Sedgwick) to abstain from bad stuff like men and drinking for the next few months, all the better to heal up whatever she’s just been through, she can’t ignore the connection she feels with both Jack and Frank. The booze helps, too.
These are problems that appear to have plagued Daphne’s entire adult life, and as she grapples with new feelings for both wild Frank and more solid Jack, she’s forced to remember — care of some woozy flashbacks — the last time this happened, with her brokenhearted ex (Matthew Gray Gubler) and the more forceful Jed (Ben Esler). What actually unspooled with her previous two love interests (a term that becomes less suitable as the film winds on) isn’t played up as a mystery. Again, it seems obvious what happened there, and then it’s very much not. However, what went down eventually proves to be the key to Daphne’s current situation and her tragic inability to just grow up.
Caught between two alluring men who offer her distinctly different options, Daphne continues to make immature, painful choices that speak to a pattern that has gotten her nowhere good. While Frank and Jack come to simply stand in for two kinds of life — one wild, one much more staid, yet both interchangeable in every way possible — it’s Woodley’s Daphne that explodes into a complex character who goes beyond the basic questions a love triangle might inspire. It’s simply a framework to explore the facets of Daphne, and while both Stan (who is particularly appealing, making his eventual dark twist all the more upsetting) and Dornan (who builds out Jack into a shattering final appearance) are well-suited for their parts, it’s Woodley who shines brightest.
Doremus’ obsession with cinematic love has long gone beyond a warts-and-all approach, routinely twisting even the most initially charming of his onscreen romances into something hideous and terrifying (Doremus movies are not date movies). Yet “Endings, Beginnings” comes to offer, dare we believe it, some hope for people who love other people. It is ultimately a different kind of love story than he’s attempted to make before, but the end of one story can’t help but inspire the beginning of another.
“Endings, Beginnings” premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.