Lessons learned from ‘La La Land’
Erin Thomassen | Thursday, January 26, 2017
Warning: this reflection on “La La Land” contains spoilers.
When I first saw “La La Land,” I was caught up in the whirlwind romance between Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, or Mia and Sebastian. Sebastian is a struggling jazz pianist and Mia an aspiring actress who each encourage the other to follow their dreams, “crazy as they may seem.” He is the reason she ends up starring in a film in Paris, she the reason he opens his own jazz club in L.A.
Fast forward five years, and Mia has not come back for Sebastian. She is married and has a child with someone the audience has never met before. This handsome, caring man may be a wonderful husband and father, but as an audience member who had grown attached to the zany Mia and Sebastian, it is hard to adjust to glamorous Mia and her unknown husband.
The improbable ensues: Mia and her husband stumble into Sebastian’s club and see him play the simple, yet emotion-filled, theme from earlier in the film. The audience is taken on a fantasy flashback through what could have been if Sebastian and Mia had reconnected. If he had reached out, or if she had tracked him down, Mia could have had a different house, husband and child.
The song ends, and Mia’s husband, unaware of her history with the pianist, asks if she wants to stay. She shakes her head no. She has gotten a dose of nostalgia and cannot prolong it without regret or inappropriate longings. Mia and Sebastian lock eyes right before she exits. “It was nice to see you again and remember our time together,” her eyes seem to say, “but I have made my choice and stand by it.”
Upon leaving the theater, I heard a father and two daughters discussing the end. “They could have ended up together,” the youngest daughter protested. “Didn’t you see the way they looked at each other?” The father replied that the look was a respectful goodbye, not the rekindling of a relationship.
My initial response was a sharp desire that the daughter was right, that they revisit their relationship and end up together. But I had to force myself to take a step back. Mia had married a different man and had a child with him. She made decisions, and where someone of weaker constitution may commit adultery out of a desire to redo, she trusted her past discernment and decided to be happy where she ended up.
It is harder to feel happy for Sebastian, who ends the film alone and lonely. Yet if he had wanted a future with Mia, he should have kept in contact with her while abroad and tried to meet up when she returned to the States. It would not be good for him to be the other man and break up her marriage and leave her child in a broken home.
It is morally better for them to part ways and not tempt themselves. Yet as a viewer my initial response was a desire to see them reunited no matter what. The classic romantic comedy focuses on one relationship, which suffers many bumps, but which prevails in the end. Mia and Sebastian’s relationship did not prevail, and my negative reaction showed how much films with alternate endings are needed.
Life is not structured like a typical romantic comedy. Most people have a number of relationships full of movie-worthy moments, and they do not end up in life-long relationships with all of those people. It is important to understand that you can get along with many different personalities, and just because you have a good time together does not mean you are meant for each other, or that it is a tragedy if you do not end up together.
This is important to realize as we are growing older and some of us are getting engaged and married. We may not be 100 percent happy in our marriages, as I doubt anyone can or should be. Or we may be overjoyed with our lives, and yet running into a past flame may make us wonder: what if I had ended up with this person? Plenty of movies and television shows would encourage us to pursue that thought in the name of love or in the desire to rack up as many romantic encounters as possible. Yet Mia in “La La Land” reminds me that true love involves fidelity and sacrifice, not undisciplined whim-hunting,
Furthermore, “La La Land” helps me see that relationships are not just about what is between two people, but how those two people help each other grow at a certain stage in life. Both Mia and Sebastian grew from dating each other for the year they were together, as they encouraged each other to follow their dreams. However, the time came for the relationship to end. It was not bad that they had dated, and it was not bad that they were no longer together. In other words, a relationship does not need to end in marriage for it to have been a good thing for both parties involved.
This can be a good thing to keep in mind if worrying about whether someone is “the one” keeps you from entering a relationship. Obviously, if you cannot see your future with a certain person at all, don’t enter into a relationship with them. However, if you feel mostly optimistic but have a few doubts, don’t let those doubts shut down the possibility. Even if it doesn’t end in marriage, it is likely that you will both grow as individuals in the relationship and be better because of it.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.