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The myth of Hollywood endings

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land.

Amid a swath of happily-ever-afters and true stories, La La Land instead critiques conventional and convenient endings

Three of the nine best-picture nominees for this year's Academy Awards all end the same way: with photographs. Hacksaw Ridge, Lion and Hidden Figures all include a postscript that features photos of the real people behind the movies' dramatic stories; Hacksaw Ridge even uses some recent video interviews, too.

Of course, the real people aren't quite as good-looking as the professional stars who have just played them, but there they are, on display in all their civilian glory, as though to prove to an audience the verisimilitude of what it has just watched. The opening words "based on a true story" – or "a true story" as Hacksaw Ridge brazenly abbreviates it – seem to give a film some special authority that pure fiction might lack. Whether old black-and-white studio portraits or faded colour snaps, the photographs seem eager to emphasize that the sentiments of these films' highly sentimental endings are honest and true.

But are they? Hollywood conventionally manipulates stories and their endings for emotional effect and these biopics are no different. Hacksaw Ridge skips over its hero's significant injuries; Hidden Figures doesn't ask how its heroines felt when their achievements at NASA went publicly unrewarded for years; Lion dwells on the emotional pain of seeking a birth parent, but not on the emotional complications of finding one.

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This year, however, there is also one Oscar nominee that calls Hollywood out, that critiques those conventional and convenient endings. That's La La Land, a film that paradoxically has been gobbled up as an escapist bonbon even as it questions Hollywood's saccharine diet. And if you plan to see the film and don't want to know how it ends, you'll need to skip ahead three paragraphs now. La La Land, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, features an aspiring actress and an aspiring jazz musician as its romantic leads; by the end of the film, they have split up – their problems begin when the musician goes off on a long tour – but have both achieved their professional dreams. So, you can't have it all.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land.

But Chazelle goes further than that in the fantasy sequence that ends the film, playing out a schmaltzy redo in which the characters unite more quickly in the beginning and stick together permanently in the end, enjoying the professional whirlwind of movie sets in Paris and jazz clubs in L.A. while staying true to themselves, loving each other and making it big. Here is a fiction that says to its audience: We know what you want, but this isn't what would actually happen.

In real life – or rather, in the more honest fictional universe that Chazelle is trying to create in his film – the actress winds up married to a nice sort who is clearly not the love of her life. Perhaps La La Land suggests rather simplistically that you have to choose between love and career, but more importantly and more interestingly, it suggests that we are all subject to dumb decisions and the vagaries of fate. A movie ends when the screenwriter and the director believe they have achieved maximum drama, while real life is often going to see its protagonists through to the seniors' residence or the cancer ward. Movies are tidy; life is not.

Chazelle makes that point rather flamboyantly in La La Land by refusing to play out the romance he has constructed, but there are no shortage of other Oscar nominees that display a similar thoughtfulness about when and where a movie should end.

Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges in Manchester By The Sea.

In Manchester by the Sea, writer and director Kenneth Lonergan finds a resolution for his characters – the emotionally crippled uncle, played by Casey Affleck, and his orphaned nephew (Lucas Hedges) – but the film emphatically eschews any easy or sentimental solution. The biggest truth in Manchester by the Sea, and one that Lonergan and Affleck are willing to deliver, is this: The protagonist is never going to recover from the losses he has sustained.

Barry Jenkins's Moonlight is also refreshingly free of any Oprah moment. There the protagonist, who has been seen at three stages of his youth, does appear to be moving toward a place where he could come out as gay, but the revelations about what has shaped his character are so difficult, it's hard to read this as a happy ending.

Trevante Rhodes and Andre Holland in Moonlight.

And what if it's not really the ending at all? Moonlight borrows the device of using three different actors to play the same character from the stage play on which it is based, but that theatrical structure becomes more mind-bending when it is subjected to the naturalism inherent in film. The three different but very real versions of Chiron, played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes, force viewers to question the continuity of an existence and the integrity of a persona. We never actually see the resolution that Hibbert's Chiron or Sanders's Chiron might experience because they have disappeared.

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When it comes to that kind of mind game, the director who really challenges his audience is Denis Villeneuve in Arrival, and here again you'll need to skip this paragraph if you don't want to know how that film ends. Featuring visiting aliens who do not experience time in the linear way that we do, Arrival begins with scenes that an audience will assume precede the main action: The fascinating revelation of its ending is that those scenes actually represent the future, what will happen after the movie is over. Under those terms, will we cheerfully accept the romantic union that Arrival proffers or will we acknowledge the divorce and death that will happen later? Is this what you call a happy ending? Arrival's tone is bittersweet, but the final answer to that question is up to the viewer.

Amy Adams as Louise Banks in Arrival.

And it is quite possible that many viewers will largely ignore the time-travelling complexities of Arrival and recall only the film's positive outcome. It's an occasional pop-culture phenomenon, when the public chooses not to engage with a complex or ironic ending but still loves the work. Perhaps the best example is Life of Pi, in which many audiences (and many readers of the original novel) seemed to discard the dark possibility that the tiger is only a metaphor, a necessary psychological escape from a much less fanciful and more violent reality.

And that is the paradox of La La Land at the Academy Awards: The film, which cleverly revives the musical genre, has been embraced by audiences for its nostalgic energy and looks set to win best picture. And yet, to accept its conclusion is to reject its nostalgia, to recognize that the movies have got to move on.

If La La Land takes the big prize Sunday it might reflect the ballots of Oscar voters who have embraced an ambivalent ending – or it might just mean that Hollywood has confused fantasy with reality once again.

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