'How It Ends': Film Review | Sundance 2021

How it Ends
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
It's the end of the world as we'd like it.

A woman seeks closure before the Earth explodes in the latest comedy from Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein.

A gently funny take on the last-day-on-earth microgenre, Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein's How It Ends sets its protagonist (Lister-Jones) up with an ambitious to-do list, then slows her down so she can appreciate the journey. Shot in Los Angeles during the pandemic, it's one of the most enjoyable responses yet to Covid constraints: Deprived of her car (and with ride-hail drivers presumably having told their exploiters to go to hell), our heroine walks the deserted streets of well-off neighborhoods, enjoying at-a-distance encounters with strangers and backyard reunions with old friends. Packed with cameos from seemingly every celebrity the writer/directors have befriended during their careers, it's more breezy than bittersweet, more about acceptance and forgiveness than a movie made in 2020 has any right to be.

A planet-killing asteroid is due to hit Earth at 2 a.m. tonight. If this news ever inspired panic in the streets or widespread bacchanalia, those stages of grief are over now: In this polite vision of humanity's end, most Angelenos seem content to hang out at home, looking inward. Liza (Lister-Jones) plans to get high and eat until she pukes. She's talked out of this by a young friend (Cailee Spaeny) we guess might be her kid sister. Then the kid offers an opinion on a topic and Liza responds, "You don't count, you're metaphysical."

The kid is actually Liza's younger self, a Greek chorus for her grown-up behavior, and she's not exactly imaginary. As the day passes, some strangers can see her; it seems that impending doom has made them more attuned to the spiritual plane. At any rate, Young Liza consistently nudges her elder self toward engagement with the world. She gets her to agree to go to a friend's party tonight, and to attend to some emotional chores beforehand. (Spaeny makes an excellent foil for the quieter Lister-Jones and is essential to the film's tone. But if she's the Younger Self of anyone in Hollywood, especially as made up here, it's Brie Larson.)

Liza decides that today she will: confront her father (Bradley Whitford) about his lousy parenting (and maybe muster the courage to face the mother, played by Helen Hunt, who abandoned her); make amends with a friend (Olivia Wilde) she fell out with years ago; tell off the ex-boyfriend (Lamorne Morris) who didn't deserve her; and hopefully make out with the dreamboat who got away (Logan Marshall-Green). But her car's been stolen, so she'll have to cover all this ground on foot. (Thank the pandemic gods, not a one of Liza's heart-to-hearts occurs via videoconference.)

If Liza encounters anyone on these eerily almost-empty streets, that person is likely to be on a deeply personal mission of her own. This is a day when a schoolteacher (Ayo Edebiri) will set up a PA on the sidewalk and finally live her standup-comedy dreams; when around any corner you might find Sharon Van Etten sitting in the middle of the street, singing quietly to an audience of none. (The directors unwisely press their luck here, watching the lovely performance through to its end, then starting it over as a duet.) But the scenario's amenability to random cameos also allows for many purely comic or whimsical moments, and bits with Charlie Day, Rob Huebel and others keep the film from becoming overly precious.

How It Ends carries more baggage than its predecessors in this arena, like Lorene Scafaria's underrated Seeking a Friend for the End of the World or Lars von Trier’s philosophical Melancholia: It's impossible to divorce this film from the real crisis during which it was produced. Some will have a hard time not thinking about the pretty, spacious homes and yards these characters all have, and the privilege of introspection. In How It Ends, the world's sudden stillness isn't causing anyone to lie awake at night, tallying up the months of unpaid rent. Tomorrow, landlord and tenant will be reconciled forever, so each might as well spend the afternoon looking for inner peace. Sounds kind of nice, actually.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Production company: Mister Lister
Cast: Zoe Lister-Jones, Cailee Spaeny, Olivia Wilde, Fred Armisen, Lamorne Morris, Helen Hunt, Bradley Whitford, Logan Marshall Green
Directors-Screenwriters-Producers: Daryl Wein, Zoe Lister-Jones
Directors of photography: Daryl Wein, Tyler Beus
Editors: Daryl Wein, Libby Cuenin
Composer: Ryan Miller
Sales: Deborah McIntosh, Endeavor Content

82 minutes