La La Land has a lot going for it: “City of Stars” is contagiously catchy, the tap dancing is unexpectedly sexy, and Ryan Gosling is objectively beautiful. It was almost good enough to win Best Picture at the Oscars (literally as “almost” as it could have possibly been). I saw it three times in theaters and am a self-declared La La fanatic. When I hear people say they didn’t love it, I feel the same way as when my roommate says she hates peanut butter: somewhat personally offended but also just confused. How is that possible? My attachment to La La Land seems misplaced, as I have no interest in Hollywood or music or jazz or L.A. or the film industry. Even though I share none of the same aspirations as the main couple, an aspiring actress and jazz aficionado, the film was relatable and poignant as if it were talking right to me. It follows a struggle we have all faced: if you love the past, how do you approach the future?
The film explores nostalgia in every form: for better times, for purer industries, for simpler love. Mia (Emma Stone) and her entourage of “struggling” actresses (honestly where did that apartment come from) hold on to every vestige of the golden era of Hollywood no matter how many times the city disappoints them. They drool over A-list actresses and eagerly attend small-talk-heavy, social-climby Hollywood parties. Ryan Gosling’s character, Sebastian, worships the jazz of the past, declaring the modern world uncultured rather than the music outdated. Mia’s reverence for the original Casablanca window is nostalgic, and personal, and motivational. On the other hand, Sebastian’s passionate protection of a piano stool once sat on by jazz icon Hoagie Carmichael comes off as equally nostalgic though infinitely less charming—more desperate and socially inept. The movie itself is nostalgic for a different era of Hollywood—the elaborate opening dance number interrupted by L.A. traffic honks and horns—so what kind of nostalgia is allowed?
The ending tests our sentimentality as the main characters make a decisive choice between past and future. If you have not yet popped your La La cherry, be wary of spoilers as you read on. The twist ending is shocking in that it defies the classic romantic ending in which—against all odds—the girl gets the guy. The La La Land happy couple acknowledges these same odds that we love to see couples overcome, but their choice is decidedly rational and wholly unromantic. They choose their professional dreams over each other, and the movie finishes with an exchange of the softest of soft smiles. After five years apart, the perfect couple has a chance encounter, but the girl turns away. She doesn’t run into his arms; he doesn’t attempt a grand romantic gesture. So, is it a happy ending? Answering this question, the audience sits in either a pool of tears or a satisfied trance as the credits roll. As we follow Mia, we don’t get the guy, but we do get our dream job. While hold-on-tight-lovers-of-the-past sob, those looking optimistically for a different future share in the soft smile.
Again, I am no Mia, but I did feel weirdly connected to the movie. The transition to college demands that we all evaluate our nostalgia. Distancing ourselves from high school not only means deleting some trademark triumphs from our resumes, but also meeting people without being prefaced by these traits. Collecting new experiences means having to choose which ones to keep (sorry, you can’t stay in the 17 clubs you signed up for freshman fall). Making new friends means trying to memorize the names of the old friends of your new friends, but then learning to accept separate lives. There’s a delicate balance to be found between respecting your past—having pride in accomplishments and love for old friendships—but dedicating yourself to a mysterious future. Why leave a comfortable place to dive into the uncertain?
There was something unnatural to me to relegating so many experiences to the domain of “high school”: high school athlete, high school job, high school boyfriend. But the distance felt less forced once I could own “what do you do on campus?” La La Land reminds us to keep the Casablanca window but to ditch the piano stool, to love the past but embrace the future. Choices can be exciting alternatives rather than failed expectations. As the characters choose one dream over another, the message of La La Land is simple: there is more than one happy ending.