Film & TV

The Limits of Hook-Up Culture

Shailene Woodley in Endings, Beginnings. (Samuel Goldwyn Films)
Shailene Woodley’s painfully realistic embodiment of a sexual adventuress powers Endings, Beginnings.

Meet Daphne. She’s around 30, pretty, a bit artsy (she makes lovely painted teapots, if anyone cares about painted teapots), unemployed. She lives in her sister’s pool house following an elliptically discussed catastrophe involving a previous job and a previous boyfriend. She’s taking a break from alcohol, and from men, but her problem is herself. As captured by Shailene Woodley in Endings, Beginnings, she is a painfully realistic archetype for all of the sexually adrift young urban women of 2020. Halfway through the movie, she wonders aloud if life might be better if things worked the way they did in Father of the Bride. Then she gets out of bed with one young man to text with his best friend: “Thinking of you alot [sic].”

Co-written and directed by Drake Doremus, a master of finely calibrated indie relationship dramas, Endings, Beginnings (which is being released digitally in lieu of a theatrical release) reveals its conservatism with that Father of the Bride reference, a hint that Daphne’s sexual tourism is not the way things have to be. The film isn’t at all judgmental about Daphne. It strikes no moral stance. It simply provides a detailed portrait of how bed-hopping has left Daphne an emotional wreck. The buffet of sexual options has made her feel empty rather than sated.

Woodley, who first attracted attention as George Clooney’s spoiled teen daughter in The Descendants (2011) and later starred on HBO’s Big Little Lies, gives a beautifully measured performance. She has a lot on her shoulders; the script by Doremus and Jardine Libaire is so subtle, withholds so much, that Woodley must convey much of what drives her character nonverbally.

Daphne is depressed and fragile when, at a New Year’s Eve party, she flirts with a thoughtful and handsome young American, Frank (Sebastian Stan), then meets an equally interesting and attractive Irish novelist, Jack (Jamie Dornan). She goes on dates with both of them, not aware that they’re best friends. After she finds out, she . . . continues to hook up with both of them. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” she confesses to her friends, but it’s pretty obvious what her problem is. She’s floating along on the currents of her time. Fittingly enough, at a party she sings “Losing My Religion,” an unmade bed of a song in which no line has anything to do with the next line.

Woodley is so winsome and likable as Daphne that she plays a little trick on the audience: We’re pulling for her so much that we don’t initially notice how awful she is. Still, we’re all creatures of the culture we live in, and 2020 Los Angeles is a long way from Father of the Bride. When she wistfully brings it up, she means the 1991 Steve Martin remake, not the 1950 Spencer Tracy original, but from her perspective the Nineties might as well be the Fifties. Wouldn’t it be great, she thinks, if romance took place amid institutional support for enduring commitment — a large and loving family and all the fuss that goes with marriage? Instead, she thinks she has “passion,” which might be a fair trade. But as the film shows, it really isn’t.

Instead of excitedly pushing toward a wedding as in Father of the Bride (in which the bride is only 22), the characters in Endings, Beginnings slouch towards middle age (Woodley is 28 and the other two principals are 37) without even accepting the commitment that comes with the title of “boyfriend” or “girlfriend.” Bereft of a solid family foundation, Daphne bears all the wounds of a commitment-optional culture. Her mother (Wendie Malick) is living with a boyfriend, having broken up with Daphne’s father, who turned out to have a second family on the side. Mom tries to make a bond with Daphne by passing along the ring her ex once gave her, but Daphne doesn’t value it for the same reason her mother doesn’t. Detached from any symbolic link to commitment, the ring is just an object, a hurtful one at that.

Another manifestation of what has gone wrong since Father of the Bride is Daphne’s iPhone. Doremus was among the first directors to take account of the cinematic possibilities of the smartphone, and did so all the way back in 2011, when he made his best film, Like Crazy, in which he captured the exhilaration of young love in a heartfelt romance that starred Jennifer Lawrence, Felicity Jones, and the late Anton Yelchin. In Endings, Beginnings, Daphne’s phone is constantly pinging with possibility, reminding her that no matter who she is with at the moment, there are other tasty options within reach. It’s both a cause and an effect of short attention spans. Texting (cleverly rendered in animated graphics onscreen) provides an ideal way for shallow people to present themselves as intriguing and clever without committing to anything as burdensome as an actual conversation.

Beneath its loosey-goosey indie texture (jumpy editing, hand-held cameras, washed-out colors, overlapping dialogue), Endings, Beginnings is acutely focused. It’s far too sympathetic to Daphne to be confused with an indictment, but by boring in what ails Daphne, Doremus makes it clear that her malaise is downstream of her sexual profligacy. In painfully re-learning what humanity as a whole absorbed and enforced over the centuries, she is a stand-in for a lot of confused young women who wonder why maximal sexual liberation is not making them happy.