The ending of La La Land left me emotionally shocked, and I did not know why yet at that moment. What does the ending mean? I couldn’t see clearly when I was in the theater. Does it mean Mia and Sebastian’s love story is consisted of a series of mistakes that, if corrected, they can be together? Why am I so shocked about that? Upon later reflection, I began to understand. La La Land showed me what movies can do, and how powerful this form of media can be.
Consider the process we perceive the movie’s first four acts, through the first Winter to Fall. Winter: two lowlife man and woman living in Hollywood and their unlikely encounter. Spring: they are attracted to each other and fall in love. Summer: their happy life together and their pursuit of dreams. Fall: they experience hardships, but things seem to work out in the end. These, allow me to over summarize a bit, are the exact same routines the audience would expect in a romantic film or musical.
The ending of La La Land is so powerful because it cleverly breaks such expectations in the fifth act, the second Winter. By the end of act four, the audience is left with the impression that Mia is very likely to get her role and finally become an actress. When Mia first shows up in act five, we all nod in agreement. Look at her, all in fine clothes, high heels clicking against the floor, and seems so prestigious that the Café she used to work in now offers her two free coffees. Just another round of routines before a wrap, we are sure. Then things veer out of our expectations; the second coffee Mia gets isn’t for Sebastian as we’d like it to be, but for a man totally strange to us. He is obviously the husband of Mia now, and they have children together. What about the romance Mia and Sebastian had during the past year? What about the dreams they pursued and the vows to forever love each other? We don’t want a strange man in the end; we want Sebastian, the character we are already familiar with, have a connection to, and can sympathize with. By cleverly breaking the audience’s expectations, La La Land makes us already nostalgic by the beginning of act five.
Then the final blow. Another unlikely encounter. They meet in the jazz bar Sebastian used to dream about, and Mia is finally a successful actress. Then cue in the dream sequence, the fantasy montage, or however you’d like to call it, only we all know this isn’t real. In a sense, we know the whole story isn’t real; it’s a movie after all, and we know the romantic love they had during the first four act and our expectations for this genre of film are already too unrealistically beautiful. But the final sequence is more beautiful still. Every bad moment is removed, if not replaced with a better version. The regrets are no more because they seize every opportunity to be happy, the setbacks they can’t get over with are now all overcome, and they live happily ever after.
Already nostalgic, I was crashed by this fantasy sequence. This is why we go to movies; this is why we make movies! In just two hours, we experience a life of could-have-beens and could-bes, a life that mimics the reality, but only more beautiful. We are not delusional. We know they are just movies, not reality, but we’d like them to be real and pour our laughs and tears into them to make them more relatable than pure fantasies. We know they are too unrealistically beautiful to be real, but in an alternative universe where we control space and time, they can be. In the la la land of film, we make fantasy real, even for just two hours. This, is the magical power of film.
— Kevin Yu