Review: This is ‘How It Ends’ — a stroll through L.A. before the apocalypse

Two women stand on an L.A. street.
A woman (co-writer and co-director Zoe Lister-Jones, left) and her younger self (Cailee Spaeny) stroll around Los Angeles on Earth’s final day in “How It Ends.”
(American International Pictures)
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The Los Angeles Times is committed to reviewing new theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries inherent risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the CDC and local health officials. We will continue to note the various ways readers can see each new film, including drive-in theaters in the Southland and VOD/streaming options when available.

Perhaps it’s all the rethinking we’ve had to do during this pandemic era, but the end-of-the-world genre has enjoyed some new beginnings of late. “How It Ends” is one of the more thoughtful and fun of these one-way tickets.

Liza (Zoe Lister-Jones) and her constant companion, her metaphorical younger self (Cailee Spaeny of “Mare of Easttown”), spend Earth’s final day facing down “regrets.” Liza plans to address unfinished business before partying with friends until the meteor hits and ends it all. Liza and Young Liza trek through Los Angeles neighborhoods, having surreal encounters with strangers and heart-to-hearts with loved ones.


Very much made during lockdown, the tiny indie is more of a spiritual cousin to the underrated “Deep Impact” (sans VFX set pieces) than to Netflix’s 2018 apocalyptic adventure also titled “How It Ends” or its recent, top-notch “Awake.” Rather than wallowing in humanity’s dark side or cinematic world destruction, the new film is an intimate, mostly light rumination on what a person might want to come to terms with, given the chance, knowing death is inevitable. Its unhurried stroll is the opposite of the underseen, appropriately frantic “Miracle Mile” (1988; another small-scale, pending-apocalypse movie set in Los Angeles).

Co-writer, co-director and co-producer (with husband and creative partner Daryl Wein) Lister-Jones follows her 2017 directing debut, “Band Aid,” with another smart, funny, deadpan comedy-drama. It’s arranged in a series of vignettes with well-known costars dropping in. Not all the scenelets are created equal; some moments feel unexplored or too easy. If the message is that, even in the final moments, not everyone can get real, then fair enough. Such encounters are less compelling than others, however.

In cameo-heavy movies, much of the fun is in being surprised when Star A or B pop up. Readers who’d rather know who’s in the movie can visit its IMDb page, but those appearances will be treated here as minor spoilers — mostly. A couple must be noted: Singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten shows up for a lovely musical interlude that beautifully scores the low-key wonderland of nearly deserted Hollywood Hills streets on End-of-Everything Day; and Lamorne Morris of “New Girl” and “Woke” crushes as an ex-boyfriend so unfaithful, he can’t remember exactly how unfaithful he was, or to whom. There’s a fun, easy-feeling exchange with an estranged friend in overlapping dialogue, deftly conveying their relationship rekindling.

Filmmakers Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones discuss the apocalypse comedy starring Lister-Jones, Cailee Spaeny, Lamorne Morris and Helen Hunt.

Jan. 29, 2021

Mostly, the film rides on the chemistry between Lister-Jones and Spaeny. Lister-Jones, with her cynicism and too-cool-for-schoolishness, convincingly portrays someone hobbled by the safety of low expectations. The very watchable Spaeny has the energy and openness Adult Liza killed off to survive but never comes off as exhausting. She’s not playing an attitude of youth; she’s playing Liza at a younger age but with knowledge of her older version’s missteps. Lister-Jones and Spaeny read as sisters rather than Protagonist and Narrative Construct. When they finally address their unfinished business with each other, it feels earned.

“How It Ends” works both as an alternative to the usual, race-against-time or humanity-sucks apocalypse dramas, and as a personal exploration of settling affairs — and it’s a comedy.

'How It Ends'

Rated: R for language throughout, sexual references and drug material

Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes

Playing: July 20-22, Alamo Drafthouse, Downtown L.A.; also available July 20 on digital