Are you feeling aimless, adrift and sad in Week 5 of self-isolation? Then Drake Doremus and Shailene Woodley have a movie for you.
Granted, there’s nothing about the coronavirus or anything like it in Doremus’ “Endings, Beginnings,” which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall but lost its scheduled May 1 theatrical opening to the pandemic and is instead opening digitally on Friday. This is an indie drama about a young woman who’s chosen to self-isolate, and who doesn’t need a virus to nudge her into aimlessness and melancholy; the situation is different, but the feelings might hit home for more than a few viewers these days.
Then again, her isolation turns into a fairly steamy love triangle between Woodley, Jamie Dornan and Sebastian Stan, an option that’s not exactly available to anybody who’s stuck at home watching. Caveat emptor, I suppose.
“Endings, Beginnings” is also a film that asks viewers to work for its small pleasures, to sink into the world that’s sketched by actors improvising much of their dialogue while working from a script by Doremus and Jardine Libaire. It takes some patience to appreciate, but the director has an ace in the hole with Woodley, who since her breakthrough with 2011’s “The Descendants” has been delivering unaffected, quietly naturalistic performances and coming across as a real person even in films like the “Divergent” series.
She is an ideal actress for Doremus — and while “Endings, Beginnings” didn’t receive anywhere near as much acclaim as his 2011 gem “Like Crazy” after its TIFF premiere, it is in some ways his most satisfying film since then.
Woodley plays Daphne, a young woman of 30 or so who’s broken up with her devoted boyfriend, quit her job and moved back into her sister’s poolhouse with a vow to stay away from men and alcohol for six months. Daphne is jobless and drained, with a well of sorrow whose sources are only revealed slowly and in fragments.
But the entire story is told that way, too. Doremus starts scenes, cuts away and drops dialogue in and out; it’s as if we’re overhearing parts of conversations and piecing together the bits and pieces.
Even when she leaves her room for a party her sister is throwing, Daphne is listless, something of a downer. “I’m starting to feel pain talking to you,” says Frank (Stan), who stops to flirt but finds himself derailed by her moroseness. “That’s because you’re in my suffer zone,” Daphne says.
But that doesn’t stop Frank, who’s soon sending her cute texts and a playlist titled “music to suffer to,” filled with the downbeat indie likes of the Cranberries, Doves, Lambchop, Efterklang, Beach House … She’s interested — but she’s also interested in a writer named Jack (Dornan), who has a slightly thicker beard than Frank and might be a nicer and more stable guy.
It wouldn’t be accurate to say things happen quickly from there, because nothing really happens quickly in “Endings, Beginnings.” But morose flirtations lead to active ones, and then Frank and Jack (who, it turns out, are best friends) compare notes, and suddenly we (and Daphne) don’t know if we’re looking at endings or beginnings or both at the same time.
One scene early in the film illustrates the title nicely, courtesy of some purposefully disorienting editing. Daphne and Frank are talking in a bar, agreeing that she shouldn’t come between the two buddies … they’re saying goodbye … they’re kissing … they’re saying goodbye again … they’re kissing again … they’re saying goodbye again … and then she’s in his apartment, making mincemeat of that vow to stay away from alcohol and men.
She eventually sort of settles on Jack, since he’s more the settling-on type and he seems to want her more than Frank does — but even so, Daphne is hardly a devoted partner. At one point she gets out of Jack’s bed, goes in the other room, texts, “Been thinking about you alot” to Frank and then gets back in bed with Jack. (Maybe that’s because Frank seems to be the better lover, but still.)
“One minute I’m having a panic attack and the next I’m high on the chaos,” Daphne says at one point. But we see less panic and chaos than we do confusion and regret — plus occasional happiness, which she seems to view with a vague mistrust.
Woodley makes Daphne both exasperating and beguiling, and Doremus uses the rhythms of her life — tentative, uncertain, haunted by events that are gradually revealed — to inform the pace of the movie. The complications between the two men build, but in many ways “Frank or Jack?” is a distraction from what she really needs to do, which is to come to terms with Daphne.
She starts to get there, more or less, in a series of scenes that are both lovely and appropriately inconclusive. One of them finds her at a party softly singing R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion”: “That’s me in the corner/That’s me in the spotlight.”
“Endings, Beginnings” takes a young woman who tries to be in the corner but must find a way to train a spotlight on herself — and if you have to lean in to appreciate her journey, Doremus and Woodley make it rewarding if you do.