Ambiguity: the Emotional effect of Memory in La La Land

First, let me ask: have you seen La La Land?

If not, do NOT read any further or you will forever rue the day that you let me spoil it for you.

Last week we talked about the role of “reflecting” or “recalling” in storytelling—how it illustrates something that we all experience as humans: the power of memory.

I briefly explained the two types of recalling that stories use in order to either reveal information or to reiterate it in the minds of the audience. If you didn’t read last week’s article, it might be helpful to get the background, because I’m going to dive right into this week’s topic:

The power of audience recollection.

In this type of reflection, the story takes a moment to immerse the viewer/reader in the recollection of past events/characters that we as the audience have witnessed. It is reminding us of an event or person that we actually saw or met in the story, and inviting us to remember that experience along with the character currently engaged in reflection.

But what does this accomplish?

Well, usually the memory we are being reminded of is supposed to conjure up a certain type of emotion through empathy.

Nostalgia, grief, regret, anger, fondness, satisfaction… the list goes on. But usually we are supposed to be experiencing whichever emotion the character is also experiencing. (I mean, how often do we see a flashback in the character’s life and think “Wow, I can’t believe he’s not over that yet”?).

Most moments of reflection only happen with characters we can identify with, because they are the only ones whose memories we consider significant. And consequently, they are the ones whose emotions we will empathize with! So basically, the more we relate to a character, the more easily the storytellers can make us experience that character’s emotions. To put it mathematically,

            More relatable character = More power over our emotions.

“Okay, but where are you going with this?” you ask.

Valid question. A question it took me 82 pages to answer in my senior thesis.

Here’s where La La Land comes in.

You know that flashback sequence where Mia and Sebastian see each other in Sebastian’s new club after five years of going their separate ways? If you go back and watch the movie again, you’ll see that scene after scene leading up to this moment, we have been given intimate glimpses into their inner thoughts, feelings, and desires (especially Mia’s). These glimpses enable us to perceive the moments of fear, embarrassment, awkwardness, disappointment, and excitement that make them human. This 2-hour long process prepares us for the wild ride at the end.

The flashback sequence we see at the end is not the first time we are asked to remember or feel or imagine things with Mia and Sebastian.

It’s simply the last, most powerful moment of recollection we experience through their eyes, and it leaves us as dizzy as they are. Because after all, isn’t that life?

We blunder and soar through experience after experience and decision after decision, collecting these memories that all have different emotional associations, and the minute we stop to look back on them as a whole, we realize how tangled up everything is. This doesn’t make it meaningless, it simply makes it mixed.

So how do Mia and Sebastian feel at the end of their reflection? Well, it’s hard to say—by design.

The emotions Mia and Sebastian walk away with are actually intended to be ambiguous.

Don’t take my word for it, read the script! The directions in the script are actually written so as to make it unclear exactly what sentiments these two people have at the end, after strolling down memory and imagination lane.

I used to think I missed something, and that was why I couldn’t decide how I felt about the ending. It was this confusion that motivated me to study the film for my senior Rhetoric and Public Address thesis. But after doing the research, after dissecting the film scene-by-scene, shot-by-shot, line-by-line, I realized my confusion wasn’t because I’d missed something. It was because the flashback sequence did its job.

There is a huge stack of research that I don’t have space to include organically in this article, but if you are even remotely interested in the overlap between film theory and psychology, I highly recommend you peruse the sources below. The kind of exciting news is that Hillsdale College is working towards publishing my thesis, so a more thorough discussion of this topic and its implications will be available before too long!

But for those of you who have already seen the movie, please let me know your thoughts!

Did you leave the film feeling satisfied with the ending, or like you’d just taken a punch to the gut? Do you think the film makers achieved their goal? What effect did the reflection sequence have on you?

And if you read to the end without watching the movie, well, shame on you. Still watch the movie though. 🙂


Carroll, Noèl. “The Power of Movies.” Daedalus, 114, no. 4 (1985): 89-92.

Dannenberg, H.P. Coincidence and counterfactuality: Plotting time and space in narrative fiction. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2008.

Lambrou, Marina. Rethinking Language, Text, and Context. New York: Routledge, 2019.

Plantinga, Carl. Moving Viewers. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009.

Roese, J.N. and J.M. Olson. “Counterfactuals, causal attributions, and the hindsight bias: A conceptual integration.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 32 (1996): 197-227.

Russell, James A. The Psychology of Facial Expression. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Soules, Marshall. Media, Persuasion, and Propaganda. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015.

2 Comments on “Ambiguity: the Emotional effect of Memory in La La Land

  1. Both Seb and Mia were very relatable characters…..definitely empathized with both of them…. had a very strong emotional response both times I saw the film. Literally cried both times….dreams and the pursuit of something one is passionate about resonates to my core…. and the what could’ve been between those two… gets me every time

    • Yes, it brings me to tears as well! Such a sign of a well-crafted story and characters. It may not resonate with everyone, but for those it does resonate with, it goes very deep and personal.

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