The 2021 Independent Film Festival Boston came to a close last night, having presented a virtual slate that included great films like Summer of Soul and The Sparks Brothers. The online format only left a lingering feeling of imperfection during those more raucous, larger-than-life entries, which Soul and Sparks certainly are, as the communal theatrical experience must bring out even more of the Big Joy in those films. I’m not sure that’s the case for How It Ends, the Closing Night film from Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein, a movie so slight and lonely that screening it at home sort of fit the bill perfectly.
How It Ends follows Liza (Lister-Jones) as she tries to get to her last party before the world ends. A conspicuous meteor hangs over her citywide jaunt, scheduled for impact around 2am, and so Liza engages in much the same behavior as everyone else: she says “fuck it,” eats a stack of pancakes with a glass of maple syrup, and sets out to right a few wrongs with the people in her life before the apocalypse arrives. She’s accompanied by her Younger Self (Cailee Spaeny), who by turns keeps Liza in check and also spurs her onward into situations she might otherwise avoid.
It’s obvious that How It Ends was made during a pandemic, even if the film is deliberately lighthearted such that it skirts actually addressing Covid or its cumulative effects. This L.A. is sparse, sunny but empty, which admittedly behooves the plot at hand. Somewhat less convincing is the structure of Liza’s journey, which sees her run into an impressive cast of bit players (including Nick Kroll, Logan Marshall-Green, Olivia Wilde, Glenn Howerton, Charlie Day, Tawny Newsome, Colin Hanks, Finn Wolfhard, Fred Armisen, Bobby Lee, Sharon Van Etten…the list goes on — even Pauly Shore is here). Aside from her parents (Bradley Whitford and Helen Hunt) and an ex-boyfriend (Lamorne Morris), each of these run-ins is a spur-of-the-moment meeting, a brief one-time-only encounter, amounting to not much more than a fleeting cameo.
While that might be “accurate” to someone’s experience traversing L.A. on the Earth’s last day, it makes for a strained comedy that never really builds momentum in any meaningful way. These encounters could likely be rearranged entirely without affecting the primary arc of the film, which concerns Liza learning that the person she really needs to face is herself. Even the instances of rectifying the past with her parents don’t land with much thematic weight, because they’re not given any time to gestate. It’s understood that there’s a tumultuous history there (the way Younger Liza asks “what are we going to do about Mom?” gets across the fraught nature of their relationship). But with scarce details and only one scene apiece for Mom and Dad, there’s a limit to how deeply we can really understand Liza’s frame of mind.
And sure, part of that can be chalked up to making a movie during a pandemic. The characters are each isolated to a single socially-distanced scene not because that’s a great way to write a script, but because it keeps the actors safe. It’s some of the same creativity-by-necessity that makes for any good low-budget production, and in its best moments How It Ends leverages the real-world circumstances of the pandemic into its own apocalyptic atmosphere. The other major bright spot is Spaeny, who finally gets a break from playing doomed characters on TV (Devs, Mare of Easttown) to play the optimistic, baggy-clothes-loving Liza in her younger form. Both of the film’s most emotional beats are carried almost entirely by Spaeny, and the throughline she provides to the string of cameos is much needed.
Still, when compared against something like last year’s Palm Springs (another quirky, dry-witted comedy with a high-concept hook and a handful of familiar faces), How It Ends is lacking in both depth and in laughs. Judging by the mostly-positive reviews out of the film’s premiere at Sundance a few months back, maybe that’s okay by most; if an uncomplicated feel-good spin on the impending end of the world is what the you’re seeking these days, then How It Ends will tick that box nicely. But one hopes that when the end actually arrives, there’s a little more to it than this.