“Necessity is the mother of invention.” — a proverb whose origin is unknown, though is believed to have evolved from a statement within Plato’s Republic, “our need will be the real creator.” True or not, when times get tough, when our backs are to a wall, we often find solutions in the darkness of the unknown. For writing/directing team Henry Loevner and Steven Kanter, their creative inspiration came from a combination of two unforeseen coinciding incidents: a global pandemic and the breakdown of a friend’s four-year relationship. The end result is a romantic comedy of a different sort, tracking not the start of a love story but the end of one in the worst of circumstances. Their film, The End of Us, is not the first pandemic-based project and it’s surely not the last. Whether audiences are ready for such a tale is certainly a personal decision, but the approach here is unique and grounded enough to warrant a watch.
It’s March 2020 in Los Angeles and life is pretty normal. Ben (Ben Coleman) is rehearsing for an upcoming audition when his girlfriend Leah (Ali Vingiano) comes home from a day at work but isn’t yet unplugged due to an issue on a project. When Ben confronts her about her priorities, a verbal spar turns into a declaration: after four years, we’re done and Ben needs to move out. One problem: L.A. goes into lockdown and Ben can neither find nor afford a new place to stay. As the two adjust to a new normal inside and outside, a question lingers as to whether either can forge ahead while both are living in the past.
Pandemic fatigue comes in a variety of forms, so it’s important to direct your energies where they will serve you best. For some, that means doomscrolling through the Internet, while for others it’s working on a new project. Taken to an extreme, neither are particularly healthy, but they are ways of coping under the extreme stresses of life among COVID-19. Because of this, aspects of The End of Us may be tricky to take in. Personally, it being March 2021, it’s amusing to be reminded of what it was like in March-June when we knew so little about the virus that we’d wear kitchen gloves, disinfect everything, and worried about the coughing neighbor mixed with a strong breeze. All the unknowables made thinks traumatic and terrifying. There’s still a great deal we don’t know and many communities continue to struggle, yet, a year later, there does appear to be a healthier approach to how we tackle basic projects. So while watching a film set within the pandemic may cause a psychological revisitation to a period everyone likely wants to forget, it’s worth applauding how wonderfully Loevner and Kanter captured the terror of loss of control via Leah and the humor of zen-to-the-point-of-idiocy approach of Ben. Vingiano and Coleman do a wonderful job capturing the differing perspectives of the pandemic at the start without ever going into caricature, finding the hilarity and tragedy in the upended normalcy of things. If not for their respective performances and a few laudable narrative beats, much of The End of Us would be forgettable just as the foundational elements of the plot imply. We’ve seen love stories, we’ve seen break-up stories, but ones during a pandemic? Not so much, and perhaps it should stay that way.
So why consider watching The End of Us at all?
The End of Us is a strange time capsule that later audiences may come to see as this neat little thing that happened in our history and two creatives decided to capture one-step to the side of a documentary. As there must be a catalyst for change in the narrative in order for the characters to grow in some form, COVID-19 becomes both the first and second major thing to impact Leah and Ben. Rather than sidestep any kind of real-world elements, Loevner and Kanter lean into them. This means that Leah and Ben watch real news briefings from then-President Trump and Dr. Fauci and, yes, even a COVID testing site makes an appearance. According to the About page on the official website, the cast and crew got tested and then quarantined before filming across a two-week span, so it’s possible that the footage we see is more of a fourth wall break than how it’s presented. What is a love story without a dose of reality, right? The End of Us has plenty of that, and not always of the diseased kind. One of the most refreshing things about Loevner and Kanter’s script is how it approaches the character beats and their reactions to each other. Ordinarily, love/break-up stories involve heightened emotions and, while those do exist here, they never reach the heights that might inspire running down a train, bus, or some other form of transport carrying someone out of town in a dramatic fashion. This grounding makes the whole of The End of Us far more charming, surprising this reviewer all the way to the end. Credit to Vingiano and Coleman for taking two characters which are, at a glance, kinda horrible to each other, and making them more than a character description on a call sheet. These unexpected dimensions go a long way in rooting for the characters as much as the film.
On the technical side, if I hadn’t mentioned that it was shot primarily over a two week period, there’s really no way to tell from watching. There’s a high quality to this indie from the production design, costumes, lighting, and direction. Based on the cute polaroid montage at the start of the credits, Loevner, Kanter, and producer/actor Claudia Restrepo lead a ragtag cast and crew implying a certain “by their coattails” undertaking, yet there’s a fantastic natural look throughout The End of Us which seems just outside the grasp of larger productions. Even if some aspects of the narrative seem a tad rushed so that the roughly 67+ days of the story take on elements of trends later in lockdown (Who had breadmaking tools in May? Did Leah make a pact with the Devil?), there’s little that’s artificial about any aspect of the presentation.
Credit where credit is due, even if The End of Us isn’t revelatory (like the play on words with the title), it’s a sweet and endearing story about two people who grew out of each other and yet can’t get away. There are plenty of people who stay in your life long after the reason for their joining has passed. This can be healthy and it’s something rarely depicted on film. The binary approach of coming together or shattering apart might be great for drama, but Loevner and Kanter don’t seem to be so interested in that. Kinda makes you wonder what else they’ll come up with after their next personal trauma. Hope it doesn’t require a global pandemic to find out.
Screening during the 2021 SXSW Film Festival beginning March 16th, 2021.
For more information, head to the official The End of Us website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.