SXSW Film Review: How it Ends
Apocalypse-lite comedy isn't light on heart or humor
By James Scott,
2:30PM, Fri. Mar. 19, 2021
How It Ends, the dark comedy from co-writers and directors Zoe Lister Jones and Daryl Wein, opens on the morning of the day the world ends. Dragged out of bed by the metaphysical manifestation of her younger self (Cailee Spaeny), Liza eats a massive stack of pancakes and bemoans how she’s going to die alone.
The other younger Liza has more pep, more verve. She points out Liza’s not alone as long as her younger self is there. “You don’t count,” Liza says, the thick self-loathing evident in the three words. Beneath the words are the real message – Liza doesn’t count as good company for her own final moments on Earth.
And so the two versions of Liza set out to check off some emotional to-dos, and maybe find someone to spend doomsday with. Filmed during the pandemic, most of the film’s runtime is taken up by Liza’s (Lister Jones) existential scavenger hunt, as Colin Hanks calls it in a cameo among a multitude of other cameos. Lots of familiar faces pop in for short, skitlike scenes – Charlie Day, Ayo Edebiri, Fred Armisen, Bradley Whitford (apparently pulled into the film due to Lister-Jones shooting her shot and texting his wife to see if he was interested), Olivia Wilde, and many, many others. Each last day alive vignette carries a certain nihilism but they are funny, having the improvisational energy of a story you tell friends at a party.
But the colorful cast is not the film’s ultimate strength. What brings How It Ends emotional punch power are the scenes between Lister Jones and Spaeny as two ends of the same person’s life. Young Liza pushes her older self to go out there, see people, and confront her emotions. But Liza refuses to allow herself the pleasure of her own company. Both actors give their performances a perfect dance – in step the way one can only be with themselves – and that harmony only makes the discord more aching. For all the indie-film grimacing humor, for all the celebs packed in for socially distanced scenes, the film succeeds most when the camera is on Liza and her younger self as they navigate the tension of trying to be alone with yourself. As the younger Liza says, “For me to count, you have to count too.”