“It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.” One of R.E.M.’s most popular songs is not just a banger, it’s kind of a motto for the new comedy from writers/directors Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein. How It Ends takes place on the last day on Earth as a meteor is barreling towards us and is due to wipe out the planet at 2am. But instead of focusing on turmoil and fear and frustration, How It Ends is populated with pleasant, carefree characters who are just trying to stay super chill and tie up a few loose ends before it all, well, ends. And while the film feels almost too loose at times and suffers from a bit of awkwardness owing to being shot during the pandemic, ultimately Lister-Jones and Wein craft a successful feel-good story that’s not really about the end of the world at all, but about learning to love yourself.
Lister-Jones co-wrote, directed, and stars in How It Ends as the film’s central character Liza. When the film opens, Liza is conversing with a whimsical teenaged girl (Cailee Spaeny) who you soon find out is Liza’s younger self. “It’s metaphysical,” she explains, and she refers to herself as a “YS” or “Younger Self.” Liza and YS decide that on their last day on Earth, Liza is going to look for closure in a few of her relationships – her father (Bradley Whitford), her mother (Helen Hunt), her former BFF (Olivia Wilde), a skeezy ex-boyfriend (Lamorne Morris), and a dreamy ex-boyfriend (Logan Marshall-Green, whose first scene in the film feels like an attack as he appears in slow-motion with a gorgeous head of hair and is cradling two adorable puppies).
When the day begins, Liza and YS are shocked to discover that Liza’s car has been stolen, so she must travel on foot throughout Los Angeles to make these separate confrontations — and this is where the unique filming circumstances come in. How It Ends was shot in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the film gains its production value not by building sets or working on soundstages, but literally by just having Lister-Jones and Spaeny walk down deserted street after deserted street. Even the character interactions follow safety protocols as characters are shown at least six feet apart, which to be honest proves to be a bit of a distraction in some scenes, but in others Lister-Jones and Wein find creative ways to separate people.
But the lack of random characters or moving cars flooding the background actually gives the film a more ethereal quality that is in lockstep with the pleasant and lighthearted tone that Lister-Jones and Wein settle on. Liza has regrets to be sure, but this is not some stressful madcap journey in a race against time. Liza and YS take multiple detours along the way that offer up some very funny comedic cameos from the likes of Fred Armisen, Nick Kroll, Charlie Day, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, Glenn Howerton, and many more. But in one of the film’s most striking scenes, Liza and YS stumble across a musician singing alone in a street. The musician explains the song she’s singing was written as a duet, and the three then sing the song together. This deep connection with a complete stranger on the last day on Earth is a moment of beauty and peace, and it’s scenes like this that give How It Ends emotional weight alongside the comedy.
Indeed, we come to find out that Liza and YS have some stuff of their own to work out, as How It Ends is less about Liza finding closure with others and more about her coming to some understanding with her own self – namely, self-love. It’s an action that so many of us struggle with and shrug off as unimportant, but when it comes down to it, loving yourself is one of the most important realizations one can make. Especially when it’s your last day on Earth.
Lister-Jones gives a really thoughtful performance here and toes the line between comedy and grounded emotion well, while Spaeny – after standout turns in films like Bad Times at the El Royale and Lister-Jones’ own The Craft: Legacy, and in particular on the FX limited series Devs – continues to be one of the most talented and compelling young actresses working today. The choices she makes are surprising and tremendously watchable. And craft-wise, for a film that was shot and completed during a global pandemic, How It Ends looks and feels pretty great. Ryan Miller’s delightful score in particular compliments the story well and helps keep the tone light without it feeling frivolous.
The film does meander a bit owing to its loose structure, and some of the scenes feel more stilted or out of place than others. Some go on too long, while others feel like they could have been cut altogether. But one imagines that’s part and parcel with the film’s freewheeling nature. Had it been tighter, it may not have felt as dreamy or leisurely as it does.
It’s hard to convince anyone to watch a movie about the end of the world right now, which is what makes How It Ends unique – it’s so endlessly pleasant and joyful that it brings some semblance of peace to the viewer, even in the wake of so-called “uncertain times.” That Lister-Jones and Wein are able to sneak in an emotionally affecting story about self-love in an “apocalypse comedy” package makes How It Ends all the more satisfying.
For more of our Sundance 2021 reviews, peruse the links below:
And it’s a positive reaction, natch.
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