Sundance 2021: “How It Ends” is a pleasant, socially-distanced apocalypse

Sundance How It Ends

Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein usher in the end of the world with a winsome indie comedy about seeking closure and reconciliation.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.)

Directed by husband-and-wife duo Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein, How It Ends can be recognized immediately as a movie filmed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Cameos abound, with each minimal character appearing on balconies, across the street, on the other side of the table. These interactions, despite any emotional connection or progress, end with a wave goodbye, air kisses, or any other touchless way of leaving a situation. As the film meanders forward, this oddness grows, as two people share a genuine moment of importance, only to walk their separate ways with no physical affirmation of that moment. 

Starring Lister-Jones and Cailee Spaeny as two versions of Liza, one current and one past, How It Ends features a slew of comedians, and obvious friends of the directorial couple. Beginning with Nick Kroll and Fred Armisen, both of which might have the funniest spots in the whole shebang, the film rattles off familiar faces as the Lizas interact with both random and related folks across Los Angeles on the last day of existence. With the world ending and a party set for the end of the night, they handle past wounds, fractured relationships, and dissect what went wrong over the years. 

Lister-Jones brings her cool-gal energy to the max, taking a breezy, witty approach in a role that rivals her past performances. She remains someone that you want to be on the screen, and when you see her, you want her to succeed and be happy. She’s likable, in a way that isn’t forced or overwhelming. Without her, the film certainly wouldn’t work, and her role as a writer/director of the project enhances the fact that she continues to be an underseen creator in Hollywood.

Lister-Jones brings her cool-gal energy to the max, taking a breezy, witty approach in a role that rivals her past performances.

Her chemistry with different performers represents the most watchable parts of the film, as she slaps her body with her dad (Bradley Whitford), recounts her first kiss behind the La Quinta with fellow high school castmate of The Music Man (Paul W. Downs), and runs into cast members of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, including Charlie Day, Glenn Howerton, and Mary Elizabeth Ellis. It remains true that the It’s Always Sunny crew just enhance any comedic space.

The problem comes as these cameos pile up, with many acting as unnecessary detours from any sort of central plot. If the cameo brings laughs, then it’s worth it, but it seems split down the middle of those that work and those that fall flat. As Lister-Jones and Wein try to scratch a deeper itch, one associated with loneliness, maturation, and an overwhelming sense of feeling trapped with your decisions, the film doesn’t hold the weight needed to explore these weighty topics in depth.

Seeped in classic Southern California sunshine, How It Ends doesn’t require too much thought or even attention to be a comfortable watch. It was born out of, and exists for, this age of quarantine and social distancing, and likely won’t have a lasting impact in my mind or in the collective consciousness. The film represents the following theory quite well: put enough likable people together and you’ll get a likable finished product. In this case, it works just well enough to constitute as a pleasant, warm walk towards growth, resolution, and the end of the world.

How It Ends played in the Premieres category of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, and is currently seeking distribution.

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