SXSW Review: How It Ends


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How would you spend your last day on earth? Are there people you’d speak to, places you’d go? Would you eat a giant stack of pancakes, or resolve old feuds? In the universe of How It Ends, where the earth is about to collide with a planet-destroying asteroid, and where every adult character has a metaphysical Younger Self, no topic is off-limits, no dream too silly, and there’s nothing to lose.

Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein have created a profoundly moving film that is responsible for probably some of the biggest laughs and most heartbreaking moments in film this year. If only we were able to see it in a theater together, it would have been the perfect film to share with a room full of people.

How It Ends
Director: Zoe Lister-Jones
Release date: March 18, 2021 (SXSW)
Rating: Not yet rated

Zoe Lister-Jones in How It Ends

Liza (Lister-Jones) is a 30-something preparing for the end of the world with her imaginary younger self (Cailee Spaeny). Her initial inauspicious plans are to just “get really high, eat a load of food, puke, and then die.” On any given day, that’s a great plan. But they realise there are a few loose ends they need to tie up before that can happen.

As they walk around the empty streets of LA — the film was created during COVID so social distancing was in force – everyone is getting ready for the end of the world in their own way. Liberated from fear of people and fear of failure, there are individuals becoming standup comics or performing as singer-songwriters in the streets. And then there are a few people, like Nick Kroll, getting really, really high. Liza and younger Liza wander around from encounter to encounter, building up to a Last Day party where they hope to reconnect with the love of their life.

Despite inevitably traffic-less roads and the usually indiscernible sound of nature and birds chirping, the film doesn’t mention the pandemic at all. Instead, using the guise of an asteroid coming to earth, it helps process some of the chaos we’ve been experiencing and asks us what we value most in life. The film’s expansive cinematography gives weight to the feeling of how vast the world is and how small people can feel in this short life. Filmed in a bright, sunny aspect, it just creates a feeling of contentment, like the start of a holiday you’ve long looked forward to, or a chance to meet a friend you haven’t seen in years. It’s really something special.

There is also a notion that LA is its own character: living there is a unique experience, and especially so during this apocalyptic time. There are quiet roads; psychics; interior designers; arguments over refuse collection. It’s a uniquely Hollywood film, just stripped of the usual life and vitality there. There are plenty of cameos to lift the mood, though: from Nick Kroll to Olivia Wilde, Finn Wolfhard to Pauly Shore. So many of these faces appear just for a scene, but they instantly brighten the atmosphere.

I’ve written and rewritten this review because it’s difficult to articulate exactly how this film made me feel. I want to capture how much fun it is, because it’s hilarious. Lister-Jones’ one-liners are wonderful, and her rapport with her younger self is pitch-perfect. They run into an ex from high school who’s wearing nothing but a Speedo. They come across two psychics, high as a kite and loving life. In a scene with old friend Ala (Olivia Wilde), the women just talk at each other for two minutes straight, their monologues hilariously overlapping as they get off their chest everything they want to say. Ala, who now has a psychic gift, keeps things light: “Your afterlife is honestly so good it’s unfair.” 

But there are quieter, slower moments to the film, and these are what really drive the engine. They come across a songwriter who sings half a duet for a friend who passed away: the line ‘I wish we could grow’ tails off before the words ‘old together’, a half-finished melody for someone whose life is missing their other half. The girls come across people they realise they should have made up with years ago, rather than wasting time. There are warnings about listening to too many rumours, and about letting trivial things warp our perspectives on life. And Liza has to speak to her younger self to help her fight through feelings of alienation and worthlessness, gradually realising that she has to have peace with herself to make everything right in her life.

Speaking about her new film during SXSW, Lister-Jones explained that the premise was to have people being themselves for a day, with no pressure to be anything that they’re not. On one level it’s about self-love, self-care, and meeting yourself at your most vulnerable and terrified. On another level, it’s about solidarity and settling old grudges, not letting these things get in the way of harmony with others. It’s about challenging this idea that we have to be alone: we need each other.

Among this year’s SXSW slate, there has been a slew of films dealing with the pandemic. It’s a topic we can’t ignore, having been immersed in it for months; but one that sometimes we want to deny. Lister-Jones takes the novel approach of using some of the collective frustrations and fears brought about this year, but rather than creating something morbid and melancholy, has channelled them into a warm, big-hearted film.

If there was a way of physically inhabiting a film, meeting all the characters, and completely absorbing all the good energy from it, I would do that. I would talk to characters about their lives and their personalities and hopes and ambitions. At least, that’s what the film would have you think. In reality, we don’t need a fantasy film world. We can just speak to and listen to the people around us, appreciating these lives we’re living right now.



In the universe of How It Ends, where the earth is about to collide with a planet-destroying asteroid, and where every adult character has a metaphysical Younger Self, no topic is off limit, no dream to silly, and there's nothing to lose.

Sian Francis Cox
Sian is Flixist’s UK Editor and has written for sites including Escapist Magazine, Destructoid, and Film Enthusiast.