Mia: It feels really nostalgic to me.
Sebastian: That's the point.
Mia: Are people going to like it?
Sebastian: Fuck 'em.
So say the star-crossed lovers Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) in La La Land, regarding the one-woman show that aspiring actress Mia's written for herself to star in. And one could imagine the same conversation between her and the aspirant jazz pianist taking place about the film itself, as director Damien Chazelle's Technicolor triumph is a nostalgia-induced revival of classic Hollywood musicals. The movie hit me like a ton of bricks in the best possible way, especially with its alternate vision of Los Angeles: a city where gridlocked commuters happily break into song and dance, and every night is another opportunity for the young and restless to cut their silhouettes across the pastel hues of twilight.
Beyond the dazzling sheen of dance numbers and heartfelt solos, there's a deeper subtext—one that may be as old as time, yet feels so acutely modern and of this moment. The New Yorker film critic, Anthony Lane, put it this way:
"Notice how the hero and the heroine of the movie, in line with its title, subsist on fantasies instead of careers, conforming to a chase-your-dream credo that is not so much traditional as antique. Would the film have taken wing if she had been a chef, say, and he had worked in I.T., quietly revering the golden age of Atari and Donkey Kong?"
A chef and a gamer might not make the most cinematic pair of lovers, but I think the answer would still be a resounding "Yes." We live in an era when youths subsisting on fantasy, otherwise known as millennials, have taken center stage. Chazelle himself, a 31-year-old Harvard graduate, is arguably a paragon of the dream-chasers Mia and Sebastian represent: His script for 2014's Whiplash first surfaced on The Black List, and the film went on to win three Academy Awards.
Perhaps the reason I find La La Land so affecting is because the dreams Mia and Seb chase are my dreams, too. In the circles I run in, you're likely to find filmmakers, actors, and writers striving for something more than just the security of a 9-to-5; our parents shake their heads when another one of us quits our job to travel the world and find ourselves. During the film's "Someone in the Crowd"sequence, Mia rebuts the tune's main chorus when she sings, "Is someone in the crowd the only thing you really see? / Watching while the world keeps spinning round / Somewhere there's a place where I find who I'm gonna be / A somewhere that's just waiting to be found." Is there a better way to sum up the central conflict of millennial existence?
As millennials, our earnest striving—for jobs that fulfill us, partners who complete us, life choices that signify we give a damn about something—may seem privileged and impractical. We're too wide-eyed for our own good, and we've had the luxury of delaying adulthood because we've had opportunities other generations didn't. But those opportunities don't make it any easier to wrestle with decisions that determine the rest of our lives.
It's tempting to call La La Land a boy-meets-girl story, but the heartache that's central to this story is more about the agonizing reality of having to choose one love over another. The film's final, swoon-worthy, sequence is a fantasy do-over of the entire film that will resonate with you if you've ever wondered how your life would've turned out if you could reverse just one simple decision. The beauty of La La Land abides in its unwavering belief in the power of dreams: Lane might be right when he suggests that subsisting on the vapors of daydreams is a fool's errand, but it can also be an absolute necessity. After all, where would we be without our dreams?
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