Warning: This post has heavy spoilers for La La Land.
In the five year fast-forward near the end of La La Land, Mia (Emma Stone) seems to have gotten everything she ever dreamed of: She’s a big-time Hollywood actress, a VIP on the studio lot where she used to work as a barista. The first hint that things haven’t turned out exactly like we thought they would comes when we learn that Mia has a baby — really? Then we meet the baby’s father, a man who is emphatically not Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), the jazz musician with whom Mia’s shared a rocky love affair over the course of the film. The relationship the musical teases won’t actually come to fruition.
The ending makes it clear: Even though the couple spends most of La La Land together, the movie never really belonged to their love story. Still, it’s surprising to watch a happy ending that’s essentially a breakup: When Mia and her new guy run into Seb in his whitewashed jazz club in the movie’s last scene, she gives him one longing look then turns to follow her husband out the door, while Sebastian imagines the colorful life he and Mia could have had if they’d stayed together. La La Land tells its love story in vivid Technicolor, but the fantastical whimsy couldn’t sustain all three parts of the ménage à trois of Mia, Sebastian, and their Los Angeles ambitions.
That final breakup is also a breaking of the mold; La La Land is fashioned after Old Hollywood musicals, most of which make sure to pair the guys and girls off just right. According to the template, its closing number should be a happily-ever-after resolution, not an acceptance of the couple’s diverging paths. But that just underscores that, dance steps aside, La La Land ultimately is not about Mia and Sebastian’s romance. The real romance was with the shimmer of dreams. It’s fine they don’t end up together; in a movie that’s in love with that past, that’s the freshest thing La La Land has to offer.
In every song-and-dance number, La La Land fusses with its genre. The story adheres to some conventions of Golden Age Hollywood musicals, and dismisses others. (Director Damien Chazelle really milks the humor in moments when modern conventions disrupt into the genre’s stylistic shorthands.) The boldest thing about La La Land is not the songs (because, come on, there are really only two good ones) but that it asks its audience to understand that a happy ending doesn’t require its leads to still be in love. Sebastian and Mia live two parallel love stories: She has movies and he has jazz. They both end up with what they wanted in the end, and the movie doubles down on their separate journeys. The movie doesn’t give us a dramatic “I choose me” monologue; it has the good manners to just to let the main characters be quietly selfish.
Besides, that kind of big declaration wouldn’t fit in this movie, which hints throughout its run time that the two leads weren’t exactly made for each other. Mia and Sebastian are a dazzling couple when they dance, but not when they do much else. They overdress to go to the movies and guilt each other into being more ambitious. Even that last stunning sequence of Sebastian’s idealized life with Mia — itself a nod to the dream ballets of earlier musicals — leaves his own life incomplete; nothing, not even a Technicolor fantasy, could let both of them have it all together. Sebastian dreams up Mia achieving modest success, but even in that wildest of dreams, he’s without his jazz club. It’s only in real life, when Mia returns to her taste in dark-haired, serious men (her husband looks remarkably similar to the guy she was dating at the beginning of the film) that she can have everything she wants. La La Land’s conclusion seems sad, but really, it’s just uncharacteristically subtle.