I recently watched the movie Ask Me Anything on Netflix. I enjoyed some parts of it and disliked other parts of it. And then I got to the ending, and…(Spoiler Alert)…I got really, really angry.
The film suffers from what I call “thematic whiplash.” As it follows the misadventures of Katie, a young woman who anonymously blogs about her sex life during her year off between high school and college, the movie starts to develop several different motifs. The most important of these revolve around Katie’s transition into adulthood, her opportunities make her own decisions, and the differences between reality and her simplified, romanticized view of her relationships. As the story progresses and Katie makes one horrible decision after another, it seems that when she hits rock bottom (and receives some sage advice from Martin Sheen’s character), she will finally understand what she needs to in order to move forward and recover from her past. You get the sense that, after all these mistakes, she’ll finally learn to make one great big good decision that can get her life back on track.
The ending arrives and slaps the viewer in the face. The final entry of Katie’s blog is written by her mother, who pleads with her readers to share any information any of them may have about Katie’s whereabouts. Apparently, Katie has decided to get in her car and drive away, disappearing without so much as a goodbye note. This is not a good decision. This is an incredibly selfish decision that demonstrates irrefutably that she has learned nothing from the events that have transpired over the first ninety-five percent of the film. Her mother and stepfather were depicted as imperfect but loving and devoted. They didn’t deserve to be left wondering about the fate of their daughter. Suddenly, this movie changes from a story about learning to be a responsible adult into a story about doing whatever the hell you want without considering the consequences or the effects it might have on those around you. That’s the thematic whiplash.
Books, movies, TV shows, and music can all suffer from this phenomenon. I feel cheated when I invest time and emotion in a character only for that character’s story to take some bizarre twist at the end and cheapen everything about his struggle. If Ask Me Anything was supposed to have been advocating irresponsible decision-making and glorifying wreaking havoc on your family’s emotions, it should have been laying the groundwork for that during the entirety of the film instead of spending so much time teasing its audience with the possibility of its protagonist’s advancement toward emotional maturity.
I realize, of course, that sometimes the point of a story is that there is no point. Any book or movie that leans toward nihilism or fatalism or absurdism is perfectly welcome to do so. But if those concepts only make an appearance in the final scenes and have a commanding effect on the conclusion of the narrative, that’s when the audience is hoodwinked out of a meaningful ending. That’s when the whiplash sets in. One of my favorite classic novels, Camus’s The Stranger, is a seminal work of absurdism…but it’s like that all the way through. We don’t feel cheated Meursault starts ranting at the chaplain, because none of the things he says is thematically unprecedented.
Not that I’m an expert on literature or that I have any standing to criticize, but in my opinion, the closing scene of Ask Me Anything is an example of extremely poor writing. I like to think that I learn from my mistakes in my own work, but as the credits rolled on this movie, I made a mental note to learn from someone else’s, too.
Keep your plots tight. But keep your themes tighter.