The latest project from Mister Lister Films is at once existential and profound, while completely self-indulgent. In their balance, both of these can be true, combining into a film that’s as heartbreaking as it is hilarious. Conceived, developed, and shot during 2020, writer/director duo Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein’s How It Ends is a small yet effectual dramedy exploring the significance of self-love and the profundity of second chances. Strangely, though How It Ends is, without question, despairing in its use of a world-ending event, the event itself is less important than the act of taking action for oneself, resulting in a tale that’s completely optimistic in the face of unavoidable doom. Is this the best form of entertainment as the pandemic grows in direness? Depends on how you elect to view the circumstance.
Lucky in business, unlucky everywhere else, Liza (Lister-Jones) is planning to spend her last day on Earth alone. Ideally, high, but, primarily alone. Of course, this is difficult as her young self (portrayed by Cailee Spaeny of The Craft: Legacy) won’t leave her alone, constantly pestering her to use the time to close some chapters and then, because why not, go to her friend Wendy’s (Whitney Cummings) for the Blow Out of all Blow Out parties. With a tiny bit of will, the Lizas prepare to drive across town only to discover their car has been stolen. Thus begins a long walk across Los Angeles in hopes to clear the board of regrets before the asteroid on course for Earth does it for her.
As the film was shot in 2020, there’s an ever-present eerie-ness to How It Ends. Rather than the natural bustling of L.A., there is a notable absence of life. Despite Wein’s lively cinematography making the last day seem like the most perfect, the lack of life beyond Liza’s POV is a little unsettling, though it does assist with the underlying ideas of self-perception and self-actualization. For instance, how often do you, dear reader, believe the positive, warm things that you think? How about the negative? Now, what if it comes from an external source? There are a lucky few who possess such self-confidence or personal awareness that the internal is all that matters (bully for them), but the construction of adult Liza is of someone who perceives herself as less than due to all the things she never did or said and cannot truly believe anything that young Liza says because, ultimately, while young Liza may be a separate entity, she is still the same person. (Don’t worry, we’ll get into the split perspective in a little bit.) So the fact that the Lizas not only are forced to walk but then we, by extension, engage in a slow journey through the vacant city requires the story to elongate, ensuring that the audience has as much time to consider the scope of the story as does adult Liza. How It Ends is absent the lunacy of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012), but that was a story about two strangers coming together to help each other as the world faces extinction. How It Ends, while also concluding with the ending of the human race, isn’t about the world ending, but about one person finally taking the time to address their failings so as to go out on their own terms. With so much in the world feeling out of control, this is a concept that is deeply appealing.
Where some may take umbrage is the employment of well-known faces which make up the cast. Some may be more widely known than others and I won’t list them here, but, if Kevin Smith can build a career out of making his movies with his friends, why can’t others? Personally, the inclusion of some folks added an extra layer of hilarity to sequences, while also making me wonder if certain others would appear. For instance, I was disappointed at the casting of Liza’s mother if only because of who I had hoped it would be, though the choice of actor was great in the scene. And that’s the thing, the cast make for great scene partners with Lister-Jones because there is an obvious familiarity, allowing the scenes to feel less staged and more improvisational, more present, more of the moment. If you’re remotely familiar with Lister-Jones’s work (Band-Aid, The Craft: Legacy, CBS’s Life in Pieces, FOX’s The New Girl, to name a few), then those who appear make sense to you, reducing the sense of stunt casting. Though, considering that so few productions were in progress at the time of shooting, the inclusion of these folks may have had as much to do with wanting to work as it was participating in the project. Or, at least, that’s what one actor implied (the desire to work) during a Zoom Q&A with Lister-Jones, Wein, Spaeny, and a few other members of the cast. In this regard, I can’t fault How It Ends for using so many familiar faces. If for no other reason than in the same way Lister-Jones uses their pre-existing chemistry to create engaging scene work, the use of familiar faces enables the audience to more quickly develop a connection with the cast. This piggy-backing goes a long way to assist in short-handing significance and pulling the audience in deeper to the story.
Of the things that may create eye-rolling is the narrative choice for Liza to be played by two people: her present self and her past self. Splitting the character in twain may seem like a cheat, because who knows you better than yourself, but it’s explained fairly quickly, naturally, and as something that others experience. It’s not tied to the spatial event headed to destroy Earth so much as it is that at a pivotal moment in some individuals’ lives resulting in a schism, wherein they began to see a younger version of themselves. The casting of Spaeny as young Liza is perfect, as the actor gives a performance that’s less mimicry than you’d expect when sharing scenes with Lister-Jones. By the conclusion of How It Ends, Spaeny’s Liza transforms before us from a representation of youthful optimism to that part of ourselves that we forget matters as much, if not more, than those we love. So while it’s good fun seeing the pair apply make-up in unison, manage a similar strut, and even conjure similar facial reactions, what Spaeny brings, her real value, is how her performance reminds the audience that we need to listen to ourselves more, the noise of the outside less.
How It Ends may be indulgent for the creatives behind the project, the cast, and, frankly, the audience, but I don’t think that makes the film any less thoughtful or impactful. Who among us ever held a dream but felt like there were too many obstacles to try? Who among us stopped doing a thing they loved simply because it was deemed “uncool”? Who among us wished for incentive, a true push, to become the better version of ourselves? If you want to know how it ends, the answer is the same as in cinema as in life: alone. But that doesn’t mean you have to take your regrets with you. With their film, Lister-Jones and Wein use the urgency of a pandemic to create a sweet, funny, and generously kind tale that just so happens to be driven by existential dread. But when you know that your choices are null, when all that you could lose by trying is absent, what would you do? For Liza, that means taking a walk across L.A. with her younger self to close some chapters before an asteroid does it for her. As the pandemic makes life a little more insular, that creeping asteroid-like feeling grows larger, too. Perhaps it is time for a similar exploration of self and make sure you make amends starting with yourself.
Currently screening during the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
In select theaters and on VOD July 20th, 2021.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.