Polygon’s entertainment team is signed up for that 2021 Sundance Film Festivalthat went virtual for the first time. Here’s what you need to know about the indie gems soon to find their way into streaming services, theaters, and the cinematic zeitgeist.
Logline: On Earth’s last day, as an asteroid wiping out the planet heads for Earth, a clumsy woman named Liza (co-writer and co-director Zoe Lister-Jones) and her younger self (Cailee Spaeny) run determinedly through the lot Angeles, to confront people to finally close their relationships before it all ends.
Longer line: If you knew exactly when you were going to die, what would you do before you leave? The question makes a rich cinematic theory, and filmmakers have come up with very different answers from a poisoned man trying to solve his own murder before dying in noir in 1950 DOA of a woman who mostly spreads contagious death panic to everyone she knows in the 2020s She dies tomorrow.
in the How it endsInstead, Liza and her younger self decide it’s time to finally try honesty. Liza has spent her life avoiding confrontation and emotional conflict until she fled a relationship with a man she loved. On the last day before being forgotten, she decides to tour LA and separately confront her parents, an estranged friend, and the man who cheated on her repeatedly. She hopes to end her life in a drugged bacchanal at the end of the world and tell the love of her life how she really feels about him.
Easily complicate your plans: the presence of your younger self. It is implied that young Liza has been hanging out with Liza for a long time, but mysteriously other people can now see and hear her, which both Lizas shake off for granted at a time when everyone seems to be just a little bit better to infinity. It’s an odd device, but there is Liza a cheerleader and enabler who is constantly pushing her out of her comfort zone, and most of the movie’s actual drama comes from the natural conflict between younger self and present self, considering how far they slipped apart.
What is? How it ends try to do? In the questions and answers after the premiere of the film at the virtual Sundance Film Festival 2021, the author-director partner Lister-Jones (The craft: legacy) and Daryl Wein (White Rabbit) admitted that How it ends was their attempt to understand the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdowns that followed. Lister-Jones explained: “We don’t really know how to deal with existential crises well or badly, except through our work … [it] serves as therapy. “
In a way, it does How it ends no unlike other people’s endless efforts to make better sourdough bread. But the timing of the movie’s production (it was shot in late spring and early fall of 2020) explains a lot about filmmaking, like the way LA seems strangely empty and how Liza’s various planned outdoor confrontations usually take place with Participants about six feet apart. It also explains the story’s uncomfortable relationship with death: all of the characters are focused on the impending global extinction, but at the same time, nobody seems particularly concerned. It is as if they have been living with mass death over their heads for months and find the waiting a chore. Most of the characters have arrived at a philosophical place where they have thought through their apocalypse plans and presented them with a desolate nonchalance.
That feels partly metaphorical – like the pandemic, the characters here are all dealing with exactly the same existential crisis at exactly the same time, but they’re all entangled in impending death long enough to take it on in their own idiosyncratic way. At the same time, all of these methods feel like absolutely LA-centered approaches. Some of Angeleno’s Liza conversations seem casual about the apocalypse because they are highly self-treating. Most of them speak the language of self-help books and spiritualism seminars, especially a cheerfully drugged couple played by Mary Elizabeth Ellis and Charlie Day and out of which they reunite It’s always sunny in Philadelphia. They caress a huge crystal and shout things that they appreciate in each other (“feet!”, “Oral sex!”). They slide towards death without fear. Similarly, when Liza visits her father (Bradley Whitford, chirping and weird as always) to confront him about his mistakes, he encourages her to primal howl and push gestures as he tries to absorb all of her negative energy and let her free . In several encounters, Liza’s acquaintances talk casually about the next life they are all going into, as if explaining why they are not too nervous to leave this one.
This gentle hippie vibe seems particularly therapeutic. Aside from chance encounters with quarrelsome neighbors, the Lizas mostly encounter peaceful people and positive emotions. Almost everyone seems sincere and willing to work together in their attempt at reconciliation. Liza has big problems with her mother (Helen Hunt), but they speak frankly and openly about it. She is furious about her cheating with Larry (Lamorne Morris), but he’s willing to listen and provide feedback, gracious if not sincere. For a movie that nearly 8 billion people will die in flames, How it ends is pretty cold.
The quote that says it all: “Tonight I just want to go really high, eat until I throw up, and then die.”
Is it going there? This lack of meaningful conflict also means that the film lacks the urgency or sense of rising or falling action. It’s just a series of incidents for the most part, each of which pretty much fits the line between comedy and drama. The scriptwriters explained during the Q&A that some of the scenes are strictly scripted while others were largely improvised which explains the variation in tones and the tightness. The openly ridiculous one-upsmanship of the duel with Larry is a highlight, as Liza playfully waves with a boombox. Say something Style, then she tries to express her frustration with him through straightforward Alanis Morrisette lyrics. But other scenes float around a central toggle without going anywhere, and the movie’s greatest drama suddenly emerges without the feeling of growing tension that would have made it a natural and inevitable part of the story.
What does that bring us? How it ends
The other thing it brings is the strange device of the inner child (or, in this cast, the inner twenty-year-old) that was pulled from therapeutic tools by the filmmakers, according to Lister-Jones. What is missing most from the movie, however, is the feeling that the device is really necessary. It allows for some tension in the late-night movie, but the film keeps feeling like it lacks the kind of end-to-end revelations about Liza and her younger self that would make that big central split meaningful. Thematically, as everyone happily gives Liza some time to speak her truths and find her center, and whatever, sometimes at her expense, the only person she is not at peace with is herself. But that idea feels basic, and execution is similarly basic. There is an abundance of potential humor and trauma in her daily interaction with her own younger self, but the script barely scratches the surface.
The most basic problem with How it ends is that it feels exactly what it is: a hobby project put together by a group of bored people who want to process their own fears. Granted, those bored people include Fred Armisen, Paul Scheer, Nick Kroll, Rob Huebel, Sharon Van Etten, Olivia Wilde, and even Finn Wolfhard in a tiny phone cameo. So the film has something of the mood of an LA comedy podcast. Every casual acquaintance has its own level of awareness. But the story feels a little battered. It’s a pleasant hangout movie, and one day it could be portrayed as a weird portrait of what mid-2020 felt like for people who were privileged to ignore politics. But it still feels like a little movie in the face of a major disaster.
When can we see it? How it ends is currently looking for sales.