Young death is tricky business. To do it justice, a movie would have to be awash in grief — and where’s the pleasure in that? The supernatural romance “Endless,” releasing on demand, tempers its mourning with lessons about mortality delivered by a couple of guys stuck on the other side. It’s a cheat, to be sure. But amiable leads Alexandra Shipp and Nicholas Hamilton — along with a thoughtfully in-sync supporting cast — keep things unfolding in a kind-hearted place when the screenplay could have easily marooned the audience in a copycat purgatory.
When boyfriend Chris (Hamilton) dies, Riley (Shipp) blames herself for the wreck that killed him. (In a throwaway subplot, a local traffic detective suspects the same.) Chris had been the laid-back champion of Riley’s artistic ambitions. He saw and nurtured her most authentic self. Riley’s parents, both lawyers, had plotted a Type-A trajectory for their only child. A graduating senior headed to her parent’s alma mater and then onto law school, Riley found in Chris’ embrace room to breathe, to draw graphic novellas, to just be. And now he’s gone.
When she starts to sense Chris’ ghostly presence — and then connects with him in a soft-focus space in which pretty dust motes catch ethereal light — her mourning deepens dangerously. She doesn’t see it that way; she confuses a tragically upended romance for eternal love. But her parents do. Their bright, beautiful daughter is going under. Bestie Julia (Zoe Belkin) and Chris’ closest bud Nate (Eddie Ramos) also see Riley’s downward spiral, even as they try to make peace with their own senses of loss. Self-care is not Riley’s strong suit. Riley coughs up blood; the dark rings around her eyes have rings. She’s starting to channel Chris’ pleasures and aversions. Consorting with her beloved in the in-between proves as hazardous for her health as it is comforting for her heart.
Nate has his own guilt to navigate, and his own flask-tilting ways of self-medicating. It was his car that Riley was driving that fateful night; she’d asked for the keys because Chris was too sauced to get back on his motorcycle. Julia has Riley’s back and wants to pull her dearest friend back from whatever weird edge she’s teetering near. Naturally, no one sees Chris but Riley. Awkward.
Once Chris shakes off the shock of his abrupt departure, limbo turns out to be not half-bad. He meets Jordan, who orients him to this new realm, which looks a lot like home with some teleporting perks. An amiable guide (played by DeRon Horton with easy charisma), Jordan has a cocky-kind vibe both youthful and almost wise (he too died young, but almost three decades earlier). Like Chris, he’s also stuck, and the reasons make for some sweet revelations down the road.
The only person grieving more than Riley is Lee (Famke Janssen), Chris’ single mom, who makes palpable her son’s death; she has to be lost and furious, wounded and wounding. Janssen is more than up for the task. Her outburst about entitlement directed at Riley’s parents in their upscale abode has a keen edge. And when, late in the film, Lee experiences an unexpected shift in her own grief, Janssen makes the moment subtle and huge.
Able to connect with Riley, Chris may be in no hurry to move on. But as she mourns in ways that make her increasingly frail — and to outside observers appear unhinged — Chris begins to come to term with the underlying melancholy that has him stuck.
The adults in this teen-targeted romance provide the ballast. Although they are the reason Riley is driven and confused, her parents (Ian Tracey and Catherine Lough Haggquist) come across as concerned and protective, more than clueless. An achy conversation between Riley and her mom about law-versus-art is a well-trod one in the teen genre, but their minuet of judgment-and-love (and the nicely credible casting of Haggquist and Shipp as kin) gets at something true about being a parent — and being a yearning teen.
Scott Speer’s direction and the script (by Andre Case and Oneil Sharma) assures there are no baddies here. Although it shamelessly nods to the popcorn classic “Ghost,” it doesn’t rely on a culturally vexing villain to score points. This is one of the movie’s charms — and truths. Arguments can lead to accidents, crashes can lead to emotional wreckage, and losses can be survived.
The question isn’t, “Where’s ‘Endless’ going to wind up?” It’s too familiar a take on a genre for that. The diverting enough question becomes, “How will it arrive at its tender resolutions?” What heartbreak will be laid to rest, what remnants of love must endure, for Riley and Chris to get on with life — and afterlife?