Mia and Seb don’t end up together.
For all of its swoon-inducing musical numbers and fantastical visions of romance, La La Land is a tale about how love doesn’t always work out. The film is a tender warning, but it’s not pessimistic. It’s empathetic, not just for love faded, but for people with passion. In fact, the first two minutes of La La Land, during the enchanting number “Another Day of Sun,” are about a break up, and a young woman’s drive to make it as an actress.
The entertainment industry is ruthless, and writer-director Damien Chazelle introduces us to this conflict immediately, as Mia gives everything to an audition — a monologue that hints at its own heartbreak — only to be interrupted in the middle of it.
Sebastian’s introduction is of the same note. His sister chastises him for his countless unpacked boxes, joking that it seems like he’s just gone through a breakup before trying to set him up with someone. But Seb stays stubborn. He’s waiting to unpack his boxes in his club and doesn’t think he’ll like her if she doesn’t like jazz. He defends his untidy space by saying that he had a serious plan, but was “shanghaied.” His sister retorts that he was just ripped off by some shady guy, suggesting that “shanghaied” is too romantic.
“Why do you say romantic like it’s a dirty word?”
At first, the line oozes with the cliche of a typical romantic, searching for love. But this mention of the word is not in regard to some past relationship or some goal for the perfect someone. It’s in relation to an idea of oneself as an artist doing everything they can to make it. Seb embraces a romance with music, unashamed.
And Mia wants to be an actress. Those are the goals that La La Land starts with. Those are the lives that it envisions from the start.
Yet, those are the lives that can so easily fall into one another, the people that can so easily fall in love with each other. Mia and Seb officially meet at a party, as she networks and he plays a crap gig. The meeting seems almost too full of fate, too romantic, but people with passion tend to fringe familiar space.
And immediately, within three minutes of their introduction, Damien Chazelle indulges in the magical with “A Lovely Night.”
Chazelle truly understands how otherworldly love can be, even when it’s simply the awkward, playful first sparks. Mia and Seb’s first song-and-dance is almost entirely about their initial rejection of the sparks. But Chazelle, composer Justin Hurwitz, choreographer Mandy Moore, and cinematographer Linus Sandgren inject the scene with a levity that makes it feel as though the two could float into the sky at any minute. A simple Los Angeles hillside is rendered as dazzling as a dream.
They start to embrace those sparks through support of each other’s passions. Artists know an artist’s inner fire better than anyone else ever could, so when one lifts up another in their pursuit of dreams, it means something.
Those sparks almost die out, but Mia finally makes the decision to light them. The two meet up again at a movie theater, and as the film stock of the movie they watch bubbles and burns out, it becomes abundantly clear what Chazelle is doing.
He’s not only suggesting that Mia and Seb’s love has become its own movie in that world, the film stock burning out just as they’re just about to kiss for the first time and their drive to Griffith Observatory replicating that from Rebel Without a Cause, but he’s utilizing the tools of cinema to accomplish this himself with his movie. He’s using his own passion to pay tribute to, to do true justice to love between passionate people. And when Mia and Seb run off to Griffith Observatory, there, finally, they both float into the sky
But no matter the feeling of love, or the feeling that cinema leaves us with, there is a reality underneath. And that’s the reality of two people with passion trying to pursue their goals as they pursue their love.
It’s difficult. There’s an incredibly thin line of balance where both people are able to make both parts of their lives work. Rather simply, Mia and Seb could not find that balance. They both compromised too much for them not to crack. As we saw at the beginning, Seb is a stubborn guy. He was prone to say something he’d regret with the stress of excessive compromise, like at the heartbreaking dinner scene. And in the whiplash of that realization, Seb responds by not compromising enough, missing Mia’s play and solidifying the crack.
In the fallout, the most crucial moment of delivering on the film’s themes, Damien Chazelle remains empathetic. While there may be a crack in the romantic love that had formed, the two hold onto love for each other as people, which includes a support for each other’s passions. Through that, Mia is finally able to break through. And with that comes the film’s most emotionally raw number, “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” — a song about love for art and love for artists.
La La Land comes to a close, the film’s final musical number perhaps its most transfixing, precisely because it’s the embodiment of the film’s empathy for people with a passion and for love faded. The fairytale that is “Epilogue” is simultaneously a magical cinematic commemoration to a love that was true and a what if for a love that could have been.
There was a chance for the film to end tragically, with Mia simply walking out of Seb’s. But a simple smile acknowledges and becomes everything that “Epilogue” represents.
Mia and Seb don’t end up together. But love sometimes doesn’t work out. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. And that doesn’t mean it has to be reflected on as something sad.
Mia and Seb don’t end up together. And that’s okay.
Featured image via Lionsgate.