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Sundance 2021 Review: How it Ends – “It might be about the end of the world, but it is also entirely optimistic”

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Zoe Lister-Jones and Cailee Spaeny appear in How it Ends by Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Daryl Wein.

How it Ends is a pandemic film without a pandemic.  Instead, the empty streets of Los Angeles stand in for a pre-apocolyptic world on the day an asteroid is set to obliterate the Earth.  Shot this past late spring/early summer, for many of the actors involved, it was their first time working post-lockdown.  But director Zoe Lister-Jones (who co-wrote and directed with partner Daryl Wein) wanted to create a “time capsule” of this moment and to, “bring some levity while not ignoring the impact of where we are emotionally.”  What the two successfully created was a hopeful, thoughtful, and entertaining comedy that is also probably the most clever of the COVID-era fare yet released.

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Liza (Lister-Jones) awakens on her last day on Earth like one can imagine she does most days – reluctantly.  But she is dragged from her slumber, quite literally, by an enthusiastic young woman who is clearly ready to face the day.  Only strange part is, this girl is also Liza, a metaphysical manifestation of her younger self (played by Cailee Spaeny) that usually others don’t see. Until today.  Because today is the final day of Earth’s existence and humans, well, they’re playing on a different level right now.

Liza is determined to spend this last night high, and alone (well alone with herself), but on the way to get provisions, they run into a handsome man carrying puppies (the writers know the way to THIS girl’s heart) who happens to be her ex-boyfriend, the one who got away.  Now with the asteroid just hours away from impact the two Lizas make a plan to finally profess their feelings to him while at their mutual friend Mandy’s ‘end of the world’ party.  The only problem is getting there.  Liza’s car has been stolen, so the two must trek across the city on foot, making some stops to check off regrets and make amends along the way.

The existing relationship between Spaeny and Lister-Jones after their work together on The Craft: Legacy (which the latter directed) clearly only strengthened the chemistry between the two actors, something that was essential for How it Ends to truly shine.  When one is playing the ‘inner child’ of the other, it requires more than just mannerisms, but true connection.  The easy interaction between Spaeny and Lister-Jones allows the more introspective moments of Liza’s journey to become more meaningful.

Most of the laughs in How It Ends are garnered from the chance encounters that the Lizas have as they amble through the various neighbourhoods of LA, or the people they visit on their ‘regrets and amends’ check list.  Those include people like an old, no-good boyfriend (Lamorne Morris), Liza’s dad (Bradley Whitford), her mom (Helen Hunt) or her estranged best friend (Olivia Wilde).  And that’s not where the socially-distanced cameos end (Fred Armisen and Colin Hanks are other standouts, but the rest shall remain unspoiled).  By the film’s conclusion there are so many that they do start to feel a little forced, and what started as a strength starts to become the film’s weakness.

One day, years from now, if you’re watching How It Ends you may find yourself wondering why everyone on screen is standing so far apart.  Then you’ll look up when it was made, and everything will all make sense.  As co-director Wein noted post-premiere, this past year was about embracing the unknown but also about trying to take care of ourselves.  Clearly that’s what the filmmakers did on this set, blocking things with distance in mind and shooting mainly outside.  There were going to be challenges shooting a movie during a pandemic but if Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein’s goal was to bring levity while remaining respectful to the time, they achieved that.  How It Ends might be about the end of the world, at a time when it seemed the world was really ending, but it is also entirely optimistic.

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