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SXSW 2021 Review: 'How It Ends' is a sweetly romanticized apocalypse

Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein's 'How it Ends' sends a woman and her metaphysical younger self on a quest to confront unfinished past business before the world ends.

Talking to yourself in 'How It Ends.'
(Image: © SXSW)

Our Verdict

'How It Ends' implies doom but inspires change, as Zoe Lister-Jones and Cailee Spaeny charmingly explore the sunnier side of apocalypse damnation.

For

  • 🍷 Zoe Lister-Jones and Cailee Spaeny play well together.
  • 🍷 Most cameos are finely tuned.
  • 🍷 Speaks its truths with poignance and punch.

Against

  • 🍷 Can appear more random than linear.
  • 🍷 Not all cameos land.
  • 🍷 Simplicity is a gift most of the time.

How It Ends is part of our SXSW 2021 coverage. You can find all of our reviews here.

Is How It Ends a collection of actors expressing their existential pandemic anxieties in the form of a romanticized apocalypse? Indeed. Does that description of “lockdown creativity” spark trepidation in viewers trying to avoid COVID-19 reminders when COVID-19 is still a global issue? I’ll bite, I was cautious. Do filmmaking couple Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein stage an overtly corona-influenced production that’s anything but a vanity conquest or exploitation of viral paranoia? Thankfully, exuberantly, How It Ends repurposes an asteroid doomsday event to send a message of not only loving one another, but loving ourselves just as passionately.

Lister-Jones co-directs, co-writes, and stars as the app-selling Liza, who only has one day left before Earth explodes into dust. Her original plans are to smoke a bunch of weed, eat until puking, then let death strike while she’s numbest—but that’s not enough for the metaphysical personification of her younger self (Cailee Spaeny). “Young Liza” pushes current Liza to embrace the freeing experience of confrontation and honesty, suggesting meetings with estranged parents and horrible exes. It’s not like consequences matter much, given the space rock hurtling at ramming speed. Can a woman who was afraid to embrace life leave existence behind with a newfound sense of self?

It’s not hard to detect the anxiousness, the fundamental human uncertainties in Lister-Jones and Wein’s screenplay. Liza is throttled into “awkward” scenarios any one of us would procrastinate until considered inevitable, be it expressions of pain or admissions of guilt or anything that admits vulnerability. Liza’s wishes to experience the world’s endgame alone are not foreign; it’s easier to push others away than open ourselves to the idea of codependency, companionship, or other scenarios where eventual hurt seems inevitable. That all becomes worse within pandemic conditions, where the option of feeling somewhat alive is stripped away by imposed isolation, and "insignificant" interactions we once feared are now forbidden.

It’s the simplicity of How It Ends that becomes quintessentially indie and sincerely endearing. The world doesn’t descend into dystopian madness like This Is The End; characters don’t abandon morality like in The Purge (no rules, maybe no tomorrow). Liza focuses on the little things, whether that’s reconnecting with a mother (Helen Hunt) who confesses her essential late-stage ghosting came from a place of never becoming maternal in her mind, feeling insufficient and terrified, even after Liza’s birth. She approaches ex-boyfriend Larry (Lamorne Morris), which allows the playboy to continue twisting Liza’s words and nonsensically display zero growth even after cheating, lying, and even blaming Liza’s opposition to—word for word—butt play. Liza experiences social frustration and is left aghast by repulsive behaviors but eventually comprehends how she stunted her emotional development by avoiding the slightest sensation of openness. Her proverbial walls aren’t just shutting people out, but keeping herself prisoner.

Truthfully, we’ve seen this throughout introspective indie dramas about discovering the “you” inside. How It Ends separates itself by adding the fantasy element of “Young Liza,” who’s an accompanying sidekick slash spiritual guide. Cailee Spaeny portrays a version of Lister-Jones’ Liza before she stopped feeling significant, before life wasn’t worth living. Their interactions span bathroom mirror take-on-the-day montages that exude tremendous charm to therapy sessions morphed into character dialogue. “You don’t count,” Lister-Jones’ Liza continually tells Spaeny’s mini-me whenever the younger iteration attempts to compliment or value the now jaded, retreated Liza. It’s gutting in a way that carries visual symbolism outside of psychological implications, which only becomes more impactful as Spaeny ditches her sunnier disposition and powerhouse optimism for enough-is-enough devaluing tactics. It’s one thing when a character repeats the mantra “You are enough” as a reminder, but Lister-Jones having to convince Spaeny—who reacts on her own volition—as a representation of self-worth is the film’s trump card. Not to mention how effortlessly Spaeny and Lister-Jones enjoy sisterhood moments when walking Los Angeles’ vacant stress, achieving immediate chemistry over pancake stacks and friendship with the oddest sci-fi twist.

Of course, the cameos in How It Ends provide an ensemble of stuck-at-home performers happy to, say, show up in a speedo as a sex therapist with a specialism in climaxes (Paul W. Downs). You’ve got the ketamine huffer (nasal spray) hosting the world’s last party (Whitney Cummings), shady marijuana enthusiast (Nick Kroll), forever crush of Liza’s who’s first introduced holding two puppies (Logan Marshall-Green)—the list is extensive and impressive. Olivia Wilde appears relaxed in front of an entire cookies-and-cream cake, sipping a bottle of wine, for a motormouth reconnection with Lister-Jones’ Liza as the two former besties let bygones be bygones by spewing apologies bottled for years. You’ll also get some It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia guys and Human Giant neighbors, as miniature skits separate Liza’s heavier apocalyptic reconciliations.

How It Ends doesn’t adhere to standard destructive restraints of what’s essentially a natural disaster epic. It’s a bit like Save Yourselves!, where the implicated horrors of a scenario aren’t even background acknowledgments. Instead, Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein create a pandemic movie in disguise, as an outlet that’s still narratively succinct and personal, yet never self-centered. How It Ends never hides its intentions but remains sincerely sharp-witted, proving that impossible circumstances can still inspire art with standalone importance. Because of films like Alone Together and How It Ends, maybe I’m becoming less shell-shocked by the phrase “Filmed In Pandemic?”