Dreams Can Break Your Heart

My wife and I saw La La Land last night. I found it dazzlingly entertaining, and even more than a bit moving. Emma Stone fully deserves her Oscar nomination (Ryan Gosling was fine, but his performance has been overrated). I think it’s one of my favorite films from last year.

I was genuinely surprised by the ending. (spoiler warning: Do NOT read on if you haven’t seen the film but plan to) Everything in the cinema playbook suggested that Mia and Sebastian belonged together. Their lives seemed inextricable. They were in love. But, at the film’s end, they had gained everything except one another. I think the question writer/director Damien Chazelle wants the audience to ask here is, “Are they happy?” The last glance in Sebastian’s jazz club suggests yes, but the whole alternative-history-what-could-have-been sequence suggests they know what they gave up on. I think this was a brilliant move by Chazelle, because it touches on something that is absolutely true about the way people live their lives. Some people achieve their dreams. Some people find a soulmate. The lucky ones do both; the pitiable ones do neither. But most people do one or the other, and which one they choose–the dream or the love–demands sacrifice of the other. Dreams can break your heart.

Though the movie is marketed as a peppy romantic musical, there’s a core of sadness to the whole story. I think that’s what I admired most about it. La La Land is about realizing your dreams, yes, but it’s also about losing them. And the alternative history sequence invites audiences to question whether Mia and Sebastian (though I think the key choice made here is Sebastian’s) chose the right thing. Was she right to go to France without him? Was he right to stay behind and try to open his club? Did they miss what’s most important?

It’s OK to ask these questions, because eventually we all have to. We all have to choose between good things. And when that moment comes, I think pros and cons lists fail to help us because what we need is not a scientific evaluation, but we need to know where home is. We need to know where we ought to lay our treasures. The gospel has a word for that, of course. I can’t help but wonder if its word to Mia and Sebastian would have been: People are more important than careers, and family and home are still there even when the dreams fade over time.

But I can’t sit in judgment. I wanted Mia and Sebastian to grow old together. Maybe that’s not what they wanted. The heart is a mysterious thing. Sometimes it sings and dances. Sometimes it’s just stuck in traffic.