Future media historians writing about film production from the COVID-19 pandemic will find a perfect case study in How It Ends (2021)—not just for its technical execution, but for its story concept and its penetrating themes. This comedy-drama, making assets of both strict social-distancing protocols and the eerily empty streets of Los Angeles, is an inspired reaction to the uncertain, apocalyptic atmosphere of the early lockdown. It’s a testament to how well conceived and executed this film is that it works so well within its limitations, without drawing undue attention to them. Many bottle-film COVID projects will probably seem contrived in retrospect, but How It Ends will likely stand the test of time; in 2053, a casual viewer may not even think to consider its behind-the-scenes circumstances.
Liza (Zoe Lister-Jones) is a mildly neurotic woman with a problem. Well, many problems, as it happens, including one she shares with everyone else: a giant meteor is crashing toward Earth, and everyone is about to die. Liza’s neuroses manifests in the form of her younger self (Cailee Spaeny), a figment of her imagination with whom she regularly converses, a running “internal dialogue” about her every dilemma. Faced with the prospect of how to spend their last day on Earth, the Lizas make a last-minute, emotional-closure bucket list, which includes confronting an estranged best friend (Olivia Wilde), a bad boyfriend (Lamorne Morris), a checked-out father (Bradley Whitford), and an unloving mother (Helen Hunt). Traveling mostly on foot, the Lizas take an extended pilgrimage across the mostly deserted pavements of Los Angeles. On the way to each destination, they encounter numerous friends, acquaintances, and strangers, all of whom seem to be undergoing similar philosophical conundrums during what can only be described as a mass existential crisis.
Speaking of a mass existential crisis, how about a deadly, worldwide pandemic? How It Ends effectively, brilliantly copes with COVID-19 without ever mentioning it. Like Don’t Look Up, it uses an imminent, world-killing meteor as a metaphor. But whereas in that film that meteor is a broad, shrill symbol of humanity’s short-sightedness about climate change, How It Ends has a more personal touch, using its imminent armageddon as a stand-in for one woman’s reflections on grief and regret over life’s tragic mistakes and missed opportunities. Its intentions are obvious, but smartly encoded emotionally.
As the Lizas negotiate the ghost-town-like streets of LA, they confront their mortality with a mix of resilience, panic, anger, grief, and humor—a turbulent, emotional melange that feels true to the nervous uncertainty most of us experienced during the time of its production. There’s no underestimating the powerful deployment of that last, most important ingredient—humor—which comes out in the Lizas’ kooky encounters with numerous denizens of the city, each resignedly going through their own eleventh-hour crises. Humor not only makes the tragedy bearable, but deftly sets the table for contrasting moments of real beauty, despair, and catharsis, giving the film unexpected resonance. The comedy, by the way, is expertly delivered; since the film basically plays out as a mosaic of one-off vignettes, it’s important to note that each cameo is delightful. The showdown between Lister-Jones and Morris is a standout, but other encounters involve Fred Armisen, Charlie Day, Ayo Edebiri, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, Colin Hanks, Glenn Howerton, Nick Kroll, and many more. Virtually every scene works, and they have a cumulative effect, informing Liza’s journey. Meanwhile, the film also leans into is fantastical surrealism in a pleasant, anything-goes manner. Since every scene is shot outdoors in a bright, sunny, freakishly empty LA, there’s an extra level of weirdness to it; it’s not easy to make Southern California look so uninhabited, and the resulting footage serves the relaxed, elegiac tone. The overall result delivers much more than expected; it’s not flashy, but it’s clever, funny, thoughtful, and uncommonly genuine.