There’s nothing tidy about Daphne’s love life — and if there were, she probably wouldn’t make a very compelling character. Daphne, who is played by Shailene Woodley in what is simultaneously her most realistic and least accessible performance yet, recently broke up with her boyfriend, moving back into her sister’s pool house. That split had something to do with a drunken one-night stand. And now, though she’s sworn herself to six months of sobriety and celibacy, Daphne can’t deny her attraction to two totally different guys, Jack (Jamie Dornan) and Frank (Sebastian Stan), who just so happen to be best friends.
This movie — whose title, “Endings, Beginnings,” is cutesily withheld until just before the credits roll — is like the mumblecore version of “The Philadelphia Story,” wherein Katharine Hepburn sleeps with both suitors, discovers she’s pregnant by one of them and winds up “Bringing Up Baby” on her own (now I’m just mixing my screwball comedy comparisons). The key difference between that era and this one is the attitude director Drake Doremus shows his leading lady: Daphne may acknowledge that her life is a mess, but Doremus doesn’t judge her for it. She’s allowed to make mistakes. (Men do it all the time — and the ones around her more than most.) Her journey is about learning to take responsibility, but also to go easy on herself, however contradictory those two concepts may sound.
Despite (or maybe because of) the sheer amount of amateur psychology at play here, Doremus and co-writer Jardine Libaire make it a point not to get too clinical. The movie may be a self-help exercise of sorts — for those who seldom recognize themselves on screen, and who don’t measure up to the expectations set by rom-coms and princess movies — but it’s disguised as a shaggy character study. Daphne recalls the character Anne Hathaway played in “Rachel Getting Married,” who looks like a train wreck to those in her circle but is embraced with greater understanding by the film itself.
It’s the sort of role Gena Rowlands might have played in her 20s, if John Cassavetes had only figured out his method earlier. Doremus arrived at his own voice with 2011 Sundance winner “Like Crazy” — about a transatlantic couple separated by visa issues — and this is the closest he’s come to re-creating the feel of that film since. Here, there’s no institution to blame, unless you count the patriarchy. Daphne finds it easy to use her imperfect mom (Wendie Malick) as an excuse for the way she turned out, but that doesn’t explain her sister Billie (Lindsay Sloane). Billie’s the one with the pool house, and the husband, and the baby on the way. She’s also the one with the birthday party, where Daphne, trying to be a wallflower, meets both Jack and Frank.
Apart from the fact that both could use a good shave, the two men seem so dissimilar, it’s hard to imagine them as friends (which might explain why the possibility doesn’t occur to Daphne). It’s much easier to accept that each would appeal to her in separate ways. Jack is attentive, professorial and explicitly uninterested in becoming a father. He’s a little too controlling in life and not nearly enough so in the sack (a long way from Dornan’s “Fifty Shades of Grey” character, alas). Frank, on the other hand, is a bad boy of sorts. He seems rebellious and self-deprecating, sends her thirsty text messages displayed in giant markerboard letters on screen and makes love the way characters in Adrian Lyne movies do (which is to say, it’s good for her, it’s good for him and it’s good for the audience).
It’s hard to know what exactly the film is coding into its various sex scenes. Daphne’s an independent woman entitled to make her own decisions, but the film finds a clumsy way to illustrate an important aspect of her sexual history — and something far too many women share, without having the opportunity to discuss with others: That one-night stand hinted at earlier … well, it occurred between Daphne and a co-worker, and this guy who appears to have been her superior took advantage of her in a way that destroyed her confidence in him, in her workplace and perhaps in anyone she might want to feel intimacy with again.
That’s a huge thing for the character to carry around with her, and one that the movie treats too obliquely, teasing us with glimpses early on, then revealing little by little as the film unfolds. That may be true to the way Daphne is processing it, but it’s also reflective of the film’s key failing: Doremus tells his story in snippets, jump-cutting between grubby handheld footage of Daphne’s life shot from with her face all or partially obscured. The film traps us outside her head, never really allowing us inside it.
At one point, fed up, Billie accuses Daphne of being “so sloppy,” which feels harsh, although the description applies to Doremus’ approach. By being so elliptical, he makes it difficult to relate to Daphne, which undermines everything Woodley is doing to forge a connection with the audience. The film eventually rewards us for taking that journey, but along the way, it feels distant, disconnected and sulky, like the melancholy music that buoys it along. When it comes to storytelling, beginnings and endings are relatively easy; it’s the in-between stuff that can be challenging.