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Emma Stone's La La Land performance transcends the film's biggest flaw: a poorly written female lead

Emma Stone is so good that she hides how thin her character really is.

Emma Stone stars as Mia, a character who would be barely anything without her.
Lionsgate

The actress looks at the audition judges, her eyes wide with nerves but softening nonetheless. This is Mia’s big shot, and she knows it, and she's about to lose herself in completely crushing it.

As performed by Emma Stone, the half-spoken, half-sung monologue that follows — a swelling, climactic scene in Damien Chazelle's La La Land — is Mia’s crowning achievement. It's the only moment throughout the movie in which she gets to shine as the brightest star in a city full of twinkling talent, and both Stone and Mia grab the opportunity with both hands.

Her voice is pointedly not that of a professional singer; it cracks, ferocious and passionate and even a little desperate. Her fists curl inward, her chin juts defiantly outward, and in that moment, you know everything there is to know about who she is, what her art means to her, and why this moment is so important.

Emma Stone does more for her character in those four minutes than Chazelle does for Mia in two hours, an achievement that eventually won her the Oscar for Best Actress. Chazelle’s script might be sympathetic to Mia — La La Land is fond of anyone chasing a seemingly impossible dream — but where he writes the character as a flat, wistful cut-out, Stone brings her into 3D, transforming her into someone resembling an actual human woman.

It’s clear from the beginning which character La La Land cares about the most

Emma Stone looking at Ryan Gosling's face in La La Land
Mia stares at Sebastian’s face, a scene that keeps up for about half of La La Land.
Dale Robinette/Lionsgate

La La Land is Chazelle's love letter to romance, jazz, and old school glamour, set in present-day Los Angeles. It's a musical that deliberately relies on two leads — Stone and Ryan Gosling — whose crackling chemistry allows their charm to overpower their perfectly adequate singing.

And as many (including my Vox colleagues Alissa Wilkinson and Todd VanDerWerff) have noted, La La Land also deliberately traffics in archetypes. Mia is a struggling actress working in a coffee shop, Sebastian (Gosling) is a struggling musician wasting his talent, and the two fall head over heels in love against a luxurious backdrop awash in primary colors.

But the film’s script has far more affection and empathy for one character over the other, and it's clear from the moment we meet them.

Mia's introduction comes first. We see her practice for an audition in her car, get brushed off by impatient casting directors mid-sentence, sigh through an unfulfilling coffee shop shift, reluctantly join her roommates — all fellow actors — for a night out in the hopes of getting noticed by someone, anyone, who can help her achieve her dreams.

In other words, Mia is the platonic ideal of an onscreen struggling actor. Nothing about this series of events is unexpected, interesting, or unique to her personality. The only glimmers of individuality to be found come during her first, truncated audition when Mia briefly wells up with sharp, devastated tears; crying on cue is an actor staple, but the breadth of emotions we see flicker across Mia’s face in the span of a few seconds is impressive, a testament to Stone’s talent.

If you contrast Mia's exposition with Sebastian's, the difference in how Chazelle sees these two characters becomes even clearer. Sebastian, an ornery pianist whose art is his life, anxiously paces between his cluttered apartment and the sedate jazz bars that don't appreciate him. We meet his sharp but affectionate sister, learn who his favorite musicians are, watch him plink out basic Christmas carols before he explodes in a burst of frustration and cascading, crunching chords.

Sebastian is clearly presented as an individual person, not just an archetype. Sure, he’s still a bit cliché at times — onscreen starving artists always are — but Gosling, unlike Stone, gets to slip into a character with some actual personality traits beyond the basics.

Mia’s story is almost always told within the context of Sebastian’s, and not vice versa

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land
Sebastian takes Mia, a woman who’s plastered her room with classic Hollywood posters, to see Rebel Without a Cause for the first time.
Lionsgate/Summit

As Mia and Sebastian’s romance unfolds in lush etudes and sidelong glances, it gets more melancholy and starts to ache. Both characters are more passionate about their work than anything else, and Mia and Sebastian’s story ultimately becomes one of bad timing, growing more and more painful as that fact comes into focus.

The struggle to balance their love for each other and their love for their work is a constant clash throughout La La Land. But the movie is so much more concerned with Sebastian’s career that even Mia’s final triumph of an audition feels like an afterthought. It’s so invested in Sebastian’s love of jazz that his and Mia’s romance also becomes the story of Sebastian teaching Mia to love jazz; if she teaches him to love anything from her life before he came into it, we never know.

Sebastian, as he insists over and over again through both his actions and his words, is a purist. He’s terrified of the world losing its grip on traditional jazz, and his greatest dream is to open his own jazz club that will put the classics center stage, let their greatness speak for themselves.

This attitude is met with a brief dressing-down from John Legend’s Keith, Sebastian’s former collaborator who sweeps back into his life with an offer to anchor Keith’s new, more commercial band. Sebastian’s acceptance of the gig in the name of financial security becomes a crucial breaking point in his and Mia’s relationship, since it flies in the face of all their bohemian hopes and dreams. When Mia goes to see him in concert, she stands in the middle of a joyful crowd and goes pale, such is her visceral horror at seeing the man she loves sell his soul.

While Sebastian is on the road, Mia puts together a one-woman show to stick it to all the casting directors who seem so reluctant to give her a chance. But even though we get to see Sebastian sit at a piano and plunk out a dozen songs — especially the mopey, meandering “City of Stars” — we don’t get to see so much as a single second of Mia’s play. The only insight we get into it is from two unimpressed men, scoffing off screen.

Sebastian did read the script at some point, and even said it’s good. But thanks to a band obligation, he eventually misses the actual premiere, and tellingly, so do we.

Ultimately, Mia’s play becomes not about the disappointment she feels when barely anyone shows up to its debut, but the fact that Sebastian messed up. The moment should be a set piece for her, or at least a way for the audience to peek at her creative life. Instead, the whole event revolves around Sebastian, and the sacrifices he’s making to fuel his dream.

Emma Stone’s compassionate performance hides Mia’s superficial character development

The fact that it took me a few days to understand that Mia’s relative flatness is the reason I didn’t connect with La La Land is entirely Emma Stone’s fault.

Stone is an extraordinary actor. She uses every square inch of her expressive face, letting even the smallest of twitches tell an entire interior story — an especially valuable skill when she’s working with a script like La La Land’s, which sketches Mia as charming and talented but lets the actor fill in the rest.

The final audition scene is what will no doubt earn Stone her second Oscar nomination, but her true victory lies in all the tiny moments she spends outside that splashy scene. She uses the mere seconds we see of Mia in early auditions to show just how good of an actress Mia — and by extension, Stone — truly is. She makes several scenes where Mia just stares at Sebastian playing piano feel new each time, portraying a whole range of emotions from wonder to acute sadness.

And when Mia finally gets that final chance to shine, free of restrictions and Sebastian’s suffocating self-doubt, Stone’s voice goes from slight to full-throated, insisting on its right to be there.

In Chazelle’s hands, Mia is little more than a conduit for Sebastian’s feelings and failings. In Stone’s, Mia is brittle and brave, fervent and fantastic, a little goofy and extremely skilled. It’s a nuanced, wonderful performance — but the film’s script shouldn’t have asked Stone to work as hard as she did just to make Mia feel real.