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The pandemic movie How It Ends takes a chill approach to the apocalypse

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and everyone’s exploring therapy and drugs

Zoe Lister-Jones and Cailee Spaeny stand in front of the same mirror, taking a moment before preparing for a party in How It Ends Photo: Sundance Institute

Polygon’s entertainment team is logged on for the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, which has gone virtual for the first time ever. Here’s what you need to know about the indie gems that will soon make their way to streaming services, theaters, and the cinematic zeitgeist.

Logline: On Earth’s final day, as a planet-obliterating asteroid streaks toward Earth, an awkward woman named Liza (co-writer and co-director Zoe Lister-Jones) and her younger self (Cailee Spaeny) walk around Los Angeles together confronting people, determined to finally get closure on their relationships before everything ends.

Longerline: If you knew exactly when you were going to die, what would you get done before you go? The question makes for a rich cinematic theoretical, and filmmakers have come up with widely varying answers, from a poisoned man trying to solve his own murder before dying in the 1950 noir D.O.A. to a woman who mostly spreads contagious death-panic to everyone she knows in 2020’s She Dies Tomorrow.

In How It Ends, Liza and her younger self instead decide that it’s time to finally try honesty. Liza has spent her life avoiding confrontations and emotional conflicts, to the point where she fled from a relationship with a man she loved. On the last day before oblivion, she decides to tour L.A. and separately confront her parents, an estranged friend, and the guy who repeatedly cheated on her. She hopes to wrap up her life at a drug-fueled end-of-the-world bacchanal, and tell the love of her life how she really feels about him.

Mildly complicating her plans: the presence of her younger self. It’s implied that Young Liza has been invisibly hanging out with Liza for a long time, but mysteriously, other people can now see and hear her, which both Lizas shrug off as par for the course during a time where everyone just seems a little more tuned into the infinite. It’s an odd device, but it gives Liza a cheerleader and enabler who’s constantly pushing her out of her comfort zone, and most of the film’s actual drama comes from the natural clash between younger self and present self, given how far they’ve drifted apart.

What’s How It Ends trying to do? In the Q&A after the film’s premiere at 2021’s virtual Sundance Film Festival, writer-director partners Lister-Jones (The Craft: Legacy) and Daryl Wein (White Rabbit) admitted that How It Ends was their attempt to make sense of the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdowns that followed. Lister-Jones laid it out: “We don’t really know any way, for better or for worse, to process existential crises except through our work… [it] sort of serves as therapy.”

In a way, that makes How It Ends no different from other people’s endless lockdown pursuits of making better sourdough bread. But the timing of the film’s production (it was shot in late spring and early fall of 2020) explains a lot about the filmmaking, like the way L.A. seems to be weirdly empty, and the way Liza’s various planned confrontations take place outdoors, usually with participants about six feet apart. It also explains the story’s queasy relationship with death: all the characters are focused on the oncoming global extinction event, but at the same time, no one seems particularly worried. It’s as if they’ve lived with mass death hanging over their heads for months now, and have started to find the waiting tedious. Most of the characters have arrived at a philosophical place where they’ve thought through their apocalypse plans, and present them with a dreary casualness.

That partially feels metaphorical — as with the pandemic, the characters here are all dealing with the exact same existential crisis at the exact same time, but they’ve each been steeped in impending death long enough to take it on in their own idiosyncratic ways. At the same time, those methods all feel like utterly L.A.-centric approaches. Several of the Angelenos Liza talks to seem casual about the apocalypse because they’re heavily self-medicated. Most of them talk the language of self-help books and spiritualism seminars, particularly a cheerfully drugged-up couple played by Mary Elizabeth Ellis and Charlie Day, reuniting from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Stroking a giant crystal and shouting things they appreciate about each other (“Feet!” “Oral sex!”), they’re grooving toward death without fear. Similarly, when Liza visits her father (Bradley Whitford, chirpy and hilarious as usual) to confront him about his failings, he encourages her toward primal howls and shoving gestures, as he tries to take on all her negative energy and leave her free. In multiple encounters, Liza’s acquaintances talk casually about the next life they’re all headed to, as if explaining why they aren’t too nervous about leaving this one.

That mellow hippie vibe seems like it’s meant to be particularly therapeutic; apart from random encounters with squabbling neighbors, the Lizas mostly encounter peaceful people and positive emotions. Almost everyone seems sincere and willing to cooperate in their attempt to reconcile. Liza has major issues with her mom (Helen Hunt), but they talk through them sincerely and openly. She’s angry at her cheating ex Larry (Lamorne Morris), but he’s willing to listen and give feedback, graciously if not exactly sincerely. For a film where nearly 8 billion people are about to die in flames, How It Ends is pretty chill.

The quote that says it all: “Tonight I just want to get really fucking high, eat until I puke, and then die.”

Does it get there? That lack of meaningful conflict also means the film lacks urgency, or a sense of rising or falling action. It’s largely just a series of incidents, each fairly closely toeing the line between comedy and drama. The writer-directors explained during the Q&A that some of the scenes are strictly scripted, while others were largely improv, which explains the variation in tones and tightness. The openly ludicrous one-upsmanship of the face-off with Larry is a highlight, as Liza gamely waves a boombox, Say Anything style, then tries to express her frustration with him through straight-faced Alanis Morrisette lyrics. But other scenes drift around a central gag without going anywhere in particular, and the film’s biggest drama crops up suddenly, without the sense of growing tension that would have made it feel like a natural and inevitable part of the story.

What does that get us? How It Ends isn’t as depressing and exhausting as the otherwise similar Melancholia, Lars von Trier’s 2011 study of depression in the days before an asteroid obliterates the Earth. It doesn’t explore as much variation in response to incoming death as Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Lorene Scafaria’s 2012 comic drama that similarly follows the lead-up to an asteroid-based extinction event. Mostly what it brings to an inevitable future “Death By Asteroid” triple-feature is warmth and uplift: it’s low-key to a fault, full of quirk and charm. In this version of the apocalypse, even the most self-absorbed, narcissistic people on Liza’s extended friends list are well-meaning and supportive.

The other thing it brings is that odd device of the inner child (or in this cast, inner twentysomething), which Lister-Jones says the filmmakers drew from therapeutic tools. What’s most missing in the film, though, is a sense that the device is really necessary. It enables some late-film tension, but the film perpetually feels like it’s lacking the kind of end-to-end revelations about Liza and her younger self that would make that big central split feel meaningful. Thematically, as everyone cheerfully gives Liza some time to speak her truths and find her center and whatnot, sometimes at their expense, the only person she isn’t at peace with is herself. But that idea feels basic, and the execution is similarly basic. There’s a wealth of potential humor and trauma in her daily interaction with her own younger self, but the script barely scratches the surface of it.

The most fundamental problem with How It Ends is that it feels like exactly what it is: a hobby project put together by a bunch of bored people looking to process their own anxiety. Granted, those bored people include Fred Armisen, Paul Scheer, Nick Kroll, Rob Huebel, Sharon Van Etten, Olivia Wilde, and even Finn Wolfhard in a tiny phone cameo, so the film has something of the vibe of an L.A. comedy podcast, where every casual acquaintance also has some level of fame in their own right. But the story feels a bit slapped-together. It’s a pleasant enough hangout movie, and someday it may be held up as a slanted portrait of what mid-2020 felt like for people privileged enough to ignore politics. But it still feels like a minor movie in the face of a major catastrophe.

The most meme-able moment: Pretty much any shot where Liza and Young Liza trade meaningful, judgmental looks is prime “Me to me” or “Me / Also me” meme material.

When can we see it? How It Ends is currently seeking distribution.

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