‘La La Land’ Dances Between Love and Calling
Editor’s note: This review contains spoilers for the movie La La Land.
C. S. Lewis wrote, “Being in love is a good thing, but it is not the best thing.”
Hollywood takes a different stance. On-screen love stories bring us dramatic clichés: happily-ever-afters, grand gestures that save the day, and sobbing protagonists railing against whatever tragic external obstacle drove them apart.
Damien Chazelle, the writer/director behind the Oscar-nominated Whiplash, set out to make a musical romance, but his new film La La Land transcends both genres.
In the movie, Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) sing and dance their way into a charming romance. They trade banter, dance through a flirty scene worthy of its classic Fred and Ginger lineage, and—thanks to the movie’s heightened reality—literally float among the stars. Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers calls it “the movie of the year,” Rotten Tomatoes has the critics’ consensus at 95 percent, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this movie since I saw it.
The chemistry between Stone and Gosling, familiar from other films like Crazy, Stupid, Love, effortlessly evokes the feelings of falling in love and transitioning into a relationship.
But, in an unexpected move for the genre, the movie treats the romance between Mia and Sebastian as less important than their individual journeys and how they reached the place in their lives where their paths overlap. Both have big dreams. She is an aspiring actress; he a frustrated jazz pianist. They meet on a random street in Los Angeles at a time when neither dream seems likely, but they push each other along.
What La La Land considers dreams, we in Christian communities would label calling, the passion that God sets in our hearts. As Christians, we believe that our pursuit of God and our pursuit of his unique calling work together in our lives and in our relationships.
In the movie, there comes a point when Mia’s and Sebastian’s choices become clear: Pursue their individual dreams, or pursue the dream of their relationship. The happiness of these two people who clearly love each other relies on more than just being together.
“Chazelle wants to make a musical that celebrates the classic Hollywood vision of love as spiritual perfection,” Owen Gleiberman wrote in Variety. “But he also wants to make an age-of-alienation love story that undercuts the old simplicities.” However, I think that when Mia and Sebastian fight, they’re fighting about much bigger things than typical miscommunication or manufactured obstacles. They’re fighting about how true the other person is to his or her dreams, because their dreams define the identity of the person each fell in love with. This is not a question of alienation, but of identity.
The New York Times described the real tension of La La Land being “between ambition and love,” saying their passion for their career dreams is “more realistic and more romantic than the pursuit of boy-meets-girl happily-ever-after.”
Sebastian has a specific vision for a type of jazz he hopes to cultivate in Los Angeles, yet he takes a job that draws him farther away from the city. Similarly, after a string of auditions and rejections, Sebastian challenges Mia on her decision to give up her own dream to tell stories through acting—even chasing her across the country to confront her.
The movie comes closer than most to showing us the kind of real, selfless love that puts the other person first. Mia and Sebastian prove that they actually are good for each other, making the audience root even more for their happy ending. But, ultimately, the movie argues that one of them will have to give up their dream in order for them to stay together.
Indoctrinated into the happily-ever-afters of my favorite romantic movies, like Notting Hill or Only You, I am tempted to believe that sometimes our calling is relationship. Perhaps we can feel the call to build a partnership and future family. But the only relationship we are called to avidly pursue in the Bible (even in Song of Songs) is the one with our Maker.
Our relationships should never be an obstacle to that purpose. Timothy Keller writes in his book The Meaning of Marriage of a “common vision” that unites two people to “journey together to the same horizon.” But that firm fix upon the horizon has to come first. When I watch La La Land, I see two people who are so in love with each other they won’t let each other give up their fixed view of that dream on the horizon.
Hollywood’s depiction of love typically idolizes romantic relationships, either overlooking the pull of unique dreams and callings or quickly resolving them in unrealistic ways. La La Land is that much more unique as it makes the case that dreams are more important than relationships. It allows these two individuals to affirm each other in their unique callings, which they are mature enough to realize they cannot share. The ending is all the more devastating because it has such a relatable message: We cannot have it all. Sometimes we have to choose, and face the consequences.
In La La Land, by the time Mia sings, “Here’s to the ones who dream / foolish as they may seem / here’s to the hearts that ache / here’s to the mess we make,” the movie has earned the sentiment. It makes a more universal statement as well by asserting that individuals are led by dreams, and some dreams go beyond temporal desires