If you ever found yourself staring at an old childhood photograph, scrutinizing what your younger self was thinking in that moment, the idiosyncratically existential comedy “How It Ends” will leave a bittersweet aftertaste. Especially if you happen to catch this oddly sedative (if not tiresomely repetitive) Sundance 2021 premiere amid the loneliness of the ongoing pandemic. In the end, we’re all a little perplexed nowadays, just like the film’s protagonist, a woman negotiating with the past and hoping to tie her life’s loose ends on what appears to be the last day of human existence. And we all have been finding ourselves with more reasons than usual to nostalgically wonder what we could have done differently in the normal days, panicking about all the missed opportunities, as if an asteroid is about to wipe out the world as we know it.
Well, this is exactly what’s about to happen in the eccentric husband-and-wife filmmaking duo Zoe Lister-Jones (“Band Aid”) and Daryl Wein’s (“White Rabbit”) quiet, science-fiction-lite tale, which finds a wide array of Los Angeles dwellers with merely hours left to live and plans to conclude their lives in whichever way they see fit. On the surface, it’s just one of those annoyingly perfect, bright and sunny, 70-something-degree days in Tinseltown, with eerily vacant streets emitting a sense of tranquility. Except, there is also a fiery asteroid in the blue sky — albeit, a very homemade-looking low-budget one — steadily making its way toward earth.
Elsewhere, Liza (Lister-Jones), a tech whiz who made a killing by inventing and selling an app, unenthusiastically greets the new day in her airy L.A. home and gets dragged out of bed by a young, precocious kid (Cailee Spaeny, the film’s greatest asset) who curiously looks like her. The duo has evident rapport and history. They have been through this morning routine before, but they aren’t a mother-daughter pair, or even sisters. The young one is Liza’s metaphysical Younger Self (or YS, as referred to in the film) and just hangs around her like an invisible imaginary friend.
“My whole life, I’ve been terrified of dying alone. But tonight, I’m literally dying alone,” Liza protests, letting her YS convince her to attend a popular farewell party she suspects an old flame will also drop by. Meanwhile, given this is everyone’s final day in the world, why not clog the arteries a little with a towering stash of fluffy pancakes and drink maple syrup out of a glass like it’s orange juice? And why not spend the hours ’till the bash going from door to door, making amends with people?
Shot entirely during the Covid-19 pandemic throughout empty Los Angeles streets, with strict safety protocols in place (you can often see physical social-distancing between the characters, even Lister-Jones and Spaeny), “How It Ends” is perhaps the first one of those fiercely independent, low-budget pandemic-centric movies most of us suspected to see at Sundance in a couple of years’ time. Beating everyone to the punch, Lister-Jones and Wein perhaps don’t take Covid-19 head-on or inhabit 2020’s skin-crawling misery with their sometimes monotonously whimsical tone and atmosphere, accompanied by Ryan Miller’s fanciful score. But to their credit, they do acutely hit on the comedic nihilism this universally-shared experience brought about, even though their film falls short on laughs.
The “So what?” nihilism informs the attitudes of everyone Liza and her YS decide to visit as they walk up and downhill like the West Coast equivalent of Will Smith and his German Shepherd in “I Am Legend.” Looking slightly uncomfortable in her block heels but at ease in her high-waisted jeans, Liza drags her free-spirited YS, boisterously clad in baggy pajama pants, to a weed store first, refusing to be caught dead without some legal substance. Too bad that an oddity played by Nick Kroll, who’s pitched a tent on an open field, had bought out the entire store before they could even get there. Also in their path are a romantic crush (Logan Marshall Green) with two adorable puppies, a neighbor (Bobby Lee) who’s failed to watch over Liza’s now-stolen car, Fred Armisen in the role of someone else’s YS, Glenn Howerton as a stalker with an unknown agenda, Ayo Edebiri’s aspiring standup comedian, Paul W. Downs’ speedo-wearing sex therapist as well as Sharon Van Etten’s soulful guitar player.
But these side characters and others like Colin Hanks — who aptly defines Liza’s day as “an existential scavenger hunt” — aren’t even a part of the young woman’s chief schedule. The lengthier scenes are with Bradley Whitford in the role of Liza’s selfish father, evidently victimized by a midlife crisis, her estranged mom (Helen Hunt), who bravely admits her disinterest in motherhood, her chronically cheating ex-boyfriend (Lamorne Morris) who has the film’s funniest scene, as well as a friend played by Olivia Wilde, who indulges in a giant cake, agrees to let bygones be bygones and hilariously lusts over Timothée Chalamet with her giggly friend.
Despite the film’s compact running time of just more than 80 minutes, some of these scenes drag out and never quite arrive at a level of depth and originality a filmmaker like Miranda July, whose distinct style the film brings to mind, possesses with her one-of-a-kind voice. Still, they contain a level of calming casualness, with all the performers somehow looking like they’re playing a version of their own alter egos. Sweet and personal, “How It Ends” is hardly an entertaining movie, or one that will go down as one of the defining films of these unpredictably strange times. But you can’t really blame the artists for trying to make some therapeutic sense of it all, with a little help from one another.