Review: ‘How It Ends’ (2021), starring Zoe Lister-Jones and Cailee Spaeny

July 21, 2021

by Carla Hay

Zoe Lister-Jones and Cailee Spaeny in “How It Ends” (Photo courtesy of MGM/American International Pictures)

“How It Ends” (2021)

Directed by Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the comedy film “How It Ends” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Hours before an impending apocalypse, a woman in her 30s sees a physical manifestation of her 15-year-old self, and together they visit people they know to say their goodbyes in case they don’t survive the apocalypse. 

Culture Audience: “How It Ends” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in “mumblecore” comedies that are self-consciously quirky in a way that will annoy some viewers.

Zoe Lister-Jones and Cailee Spaeny in “How It Ends” (Photo courtesy of MGM/American International Pictures)

The smugly oddball “How It Ends” looks and sounds like it could have been a pilot episode for a mumblecore sitcom rather than a compelling cinematic experience. In this time-wasting apocalyptic comedy, the end of the world is depicted as Los Angeles hipsters and weirdos acting as annoying as possible and thinking that they’re hilarious. You can see that on Hollywood Boulevard for free. You don’t need to pay money to see that in a movie as dull as this one.

Husband-and-wife duo Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein wrote and directed “How It Ends,” and it looks exactly like what it is: A movie that was rushed into production during the pre-vaccine COVID-19 pandemic, just so the filmmakers could brag about how they braved the pandemic to make this movie. Unfortunately, not enough time seems to have been spent on developing an interesting story for this repetitive and mostly empty-headed film.

“How It Ends” takes place in Los Angeles, just hours before an apocalypse is supposed to destroy the world. It’s never explained how people know the exact hour that this apocalypse is going to hit. But the characters in this movie are just way too calm about it, and they go about their lives as if it’s just another sunny day in California.

At least half of this movie just shows the two main characters walking from house to house, as they say goodbye to friends and assorted loved ones before the end of the world happens. Expect to see repetitive shots of people sauntering down a street as if they’re just out for a pleasant stroll before the apocalypse. And everyone they talk to just happens to be “quirky.”

The two main characters in the story are supposed to be the same person at different stages in her life. The movie opens with protagonist Liza (played by Lister-Jones), who’s in her 30s and with an unknown occupation, in her home on the morning before the apocalypse. There’s a teenage girl (played by Cailee Spaeny) jumping up and down on Liza’s bed.

Liza checks her voice messages and finds out that her friend Mandy (played by Whitney Cummings) has invited Liza to an end-of-the-world party happening that night. Liza tells the teenage girl, “Tonight, I want to get really fucking high and eat ’til I puke.” The girl in Liza’s house replies, “I can list so many problems with that idea. The first is: You’re out of weed.”

Who is this girl? Liza finds out this other person in her home is her 15-year-old self. Liza might want to roll on Ecstasy to get high, but the only thing rolling during this movie will be viewers’ eyes at the self-consciously twee absurdity of it all. Guess who’s hanging out with Liza for the whole movie? Young Liza, who’s somehow wiser and more emotionally intuitive than the older Liza.

It’s explained in the movie that Young Liza can only be seen on the last day before the apocalypse happens. And based on the advice that Young Liza gives her older self, Young Liza is supposed to embody hindsight. Young Liza also doesn’t have the emotional baggage that older Liza has, so she’s able to see things more clearly when it comes to unresolved issues in older Liza’s life.

Before Liza and her younger self go to the party, they decide to visit a series of people to say their final goodbyes. A lot of these half-baked scenes (many of them look improvised) are just filler. There are long stretches of the movie where it’s nothing but Liza and her younger self walking from place to place and encountering goofy, strange and usually very irritating people.

Wait, doesn’t everyone drive in Los Angeles if they can afford it? The movie comes up with a reason for why Liza and her teenage mini-me end up walking everywhere for more than half the movie: Liza’s car has been stolen. It’s the end of the world, so there’s no point in reporting the theft to the police. Will Liza get her car back though? That question is answered in the movie.

Most of the people whom Liza and her young self visit are the type of characters you would expect in a low-budget indie flick where the filmmakers think that it’s automatically supposed to be funny to see adults acting like immature kooks. There are the wacky neighbors in different homes, such as Derek (played by Bobby Lee), who’s a babbling stoner; Manny (played by Fred Armisen), a forgetful eccentric; and anxious Dave (played by Paul Scheer), who gets yelled at by another neighbor for not washing his recycling container.

And then there are a few people randomly performing in the middle of the street or on a sidewalk in this residential area, including a nameless stand-up comedian (played by Ayo Edebiri), who’s actually one of the few highlights of the film. Real-life singer Sharon Van Etten shows up toward the end of the film as a folksy singer named Jet, who plays acoustic guitar in the street to an enthralled audience of two: Liza and her younger self.

“How It Ends” desperately wants to be a uniquely modern film, but it uses the oldest and most cliché trope in a comedy starring a woman: She’s pining over a man because she wants him to be her romantic partner. In Liza’s case, “the one who got away” is Nate (played by Logan Marshall-Green), a former hookup whom she has deeper feelings for than she was willing to admit when he was in her life and when she emotionally pushed him away. Liza regrets shutting Nate out of her life, and she wants to see Nate again so she can tell him that she loves him before the end of the world happens.

Liza also has some unfinished business with her divorced parents Kenny (played by Bradley Whitford) and Lucinda (played by Helen Hunt), as well as her ex-boyfriend Larry (played by Lamorne Morris), who cheated on her when they were together. Liza visits all of them during this movie to tell them how she really feels. Viewers find out that she has major abandonment issues and has had a problem communicating her true feelings to the people who are closest to her.

But the best and funniest encounter that Liza has is with an estranged friend named Alay (played by Olivia Wilde), who’s just as neurotic as Liza is. Liza and Alay have a rapid-fire conversation where they talk over each other about what went wrong in their friendship (they fell out because Alay didn’t approve of Larry), and they call a truce—because of, you know, the apocalypse.

Alay eats a very decadent-looking cake during this conversation and says she’s a psychic. What does she see in Liza’s afterlife future? Alay says, “Timothée Chalamet and lots of dairy with no consequences.” Sounds like heaven for a lot of people.

If only “How It Ends” had more of this type of laugh-out-loud comedic scene with Wilde and Lister-Jones, because they have such natural and appealing chemistry with each other. Maybe they can co-star in another movie someday. Hopefully, it would have a better screenplay and more exciting direction than what’s in “How It Ends.”

But for every scene like the rip-roaring one with Wilde, there are five or six more scenes in “How It Ends” that are just so tedious and downright cringeworthy. For example, when Liza goes to her ex-boyfriend Larry’s home, it’s a retro ripoff with derivative ideas: She holds up a boombox (just like John Cusack famously did in the 1989 movie “Say Anything”), and then she quotes the chorus of Alanis Morissette’s 1995 hit “You Oughta Know.”

And there’s some self-pitying drivel, such as when Liza and her younger self have an argument with each other. Liza wants to ditch her younger self and continue on her own, because she thinks Young Liza doesn’t count as her real self. Young Liza shouts, “I do count! All your life, you’ve been licking your fucking wounds, when I’m the biggest wound of all!” Oh, boo hoo. Did anyone bring any tissues?

Lister-Jones and Spaeny previously worked together in the disappointing 2020 horror film “The Craft: Legacy,” which was written and directed by Lister-Jones and starred Spaeny as a teenage witch who joins a coven of other teen witches. The chemistry between Lister-Jones and Spaeny in “How It Ends” is more like older sister/younger sister as two different people, rather than entirely convincing as two versions of the same person. One of the takeaways from the movie is that Liza looks physically older than her younger self, but she hasn’t emotionally matured very much since she was a teenager.

Spaeny makes some attempt to mimic certain mannerisms that older Liza would have had in her teen years. And there are times that Liza and her younger self do things in snyc when they’re walking down the street. However, the movie looks like it was filmed so quickly that Spaeny and Lister-Jones didn’t have enough time to do work on body language and speech patterns that are more subtle and nuanced.

“How It Ends” is not so off-putting that it won’t find its share of people who will love this movie. There’s a very specific type of viewer who automatically thinks any movie that reeks of being self-congratulatory “quirky” is something that’s worth admiring. But for people who prefer their comedies to actually be funny and have a significant plot, you’ll have to look elsewhere, because “How It Ends” comes up very short in these elements and is mostly just a series of poorly conceived vignettes.

MGM’s American International Pictures released “How It Ends” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on July 20, 2021.

Review: ‘As of Yet,’ starring Taylor Garron

June 23, 2021

by Carla Hay

Taylor Garron in “As of Yet” (Photo by Jamal Solomon)

“As of Yet”

Directed by Taylor Garron and Chanel James

Culture Representation: Taking place over two days in June 2020, mainly in New York City, as as well as in Florida, Los Angeles, and the United Kingdom, the comedy/drama film “As of Yet” (or “as of yet,” as the movie’s title is sometimes styled) features a predominantly African American cast of characters (with two white people and one Asian), representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: During her COVID-19 pandemic quarantine, a woman in her 20s has dilemmas about two people in her life: her overly possessive roommate (who’s been her best friend since college) and a potential new love interest, who would be the first in-person date she’s had since the quarantine began.

Culture Audience: “As of Yet” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in watching a realistic and minimalist quarantine comedy/drama that explores issues related to dating, friendships and family.

There have been several scripted movies that take place during the COVID-19 pandemic that have attempted to depict authentic quarantine experiences. The comedy/drama “As of Yet” is one of the few that gets it right. It’s a witty, warm and relatable film that doesn’t try to scare people into thinking that someone is going to die at any moment in the movie. Instead, the only fear that’s portrayed in the movie is the fear of letting go of a co-dependent but toxic best friend, as well as how dating a potential new love interest might affect the friendship. It’s a movie that’s filled with various conversations held over Zoom and FaceTime, but the story will connect on a deeper level with audiences who understand that’s it’s really about reflecting on life priorities.

Taylor Garron is the star, writer, co-director and one of the producers of “As of Yet,” which is the feature-film directorial debut of Garron, who co-directed with Chanel James. “As of Yet” is an impressive directorial debut, even if it didn’t have a COVID-19 pandemic setting. Garron’s writing is emotionally intelligent and appealing to anyone who wants to see people in scripted movies act and talk like how college-educated people in the real world talk. The fact that most of the cast members are black is a bonus for the film. “As of Yet” had its world premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. Garron and James won the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival’s Nora Ephron Award, a prize given to emerging female filmmakers.

“As of Yet” admirably and skillfully shows a very real and vibrant part of black culture that rarely gets showcased in movies and doesn’t fall into the same, over-used negative sterotypes that movies have of black people. Nowhere in this movie is anyone portrayed as a criminal, poor or a struggling single parent. Portraying black people as second-class citizens is too often the narrative for a movie where the central character is black and living in a big city, even though most black people in America are not criminals, poor or struggling single parents. A movie starring a black woman usually centers the story on either pain or anger, but Garron refuses to go down that road that often leads to exploitation.

Instead, Garron’s Naomi Parson character (the movie’s protagonist, who’s in her mid-20s), is a relatively happy person who’s got a pretty great life, all things considered. She’s an actress who has loving and supportive family members and friends. She’s healthy. She’s college-educated. And she lives in a comfortable apartment in a quiet, tree-lined street in New York City’s Brooklyn borough. She’s staying safe in the middle of a deadly pandemic, but don’t expect this movie to kill her off or for her to get bad medical news—two other over-used negative tropes for black people with prominent roles in movies.

“As of Yet,” which takes place over two days and two nights, begins on Day 83 of Naomi’s quarantine. There are two types of videos in the movie: Naomi’s private video diaries and the video conversations that she has on Zoom and FaceTime. Naomi is an actress on an unnamed TV series that is currently on hiatus due to the pandemic. She’s been receiving unemployment benefits in the meantime. And she’s proud to have a reached a milestone in her finances: She now has about $10,000 in personal savings.

The movie doesn’t mention what college Naomi went to, but it’s mentioned that it was a four-year university in Amherst, Massachusetts. It’s where she met her white best friend/roommate Sara (played by Eva Victor), who is currently and temporarily staying with Sara’s parents in Florida. The movie never mentions what Sara does for a living, but she’s very spoiled, and she talks in that snotty tone of voice that sounds like she watches too much of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” and “The Real Housewives.” In fact, after watching Sara and her manipulations in this movie, Sara seems like someone who would fit right in on a reality show about self-centered, catty women.

The first 10 minutes of “As of Yet” could be a little bit of turnoff to viewers who might think this is a movie that looks like any of the millions of social media video conversations made by young people who babble on about potential love interests or what their party plans are. But the movie gets much better as it goes along. It becomes a riveting character study of a woman finding her way through her post-college identity.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a big conversation topic in “As of Yet,” but it’s not the movie’s only focus. Many of the issues brought forth are issues that were going on in Naomi’s life before the pandemic. The pandemic is often used as a reason for certain people’s words and actions. But the pandemic can also force people to evaluate certain things in their lives.

Naomi faces that type of personal reckoning when it to comes to her friendship with Sara. The main dilemma that Naomi has is deciding if her friendship with Sara is worth keeping. It’s a very co-dependent, lopsided relationship where Naomi does a lot of the giving, and Sara does a lot of the taking.

As Naomi says in her video diary near the beginning of the movie: “I really miss Sara.” Sara’s quarantine with her parents is the longest that Naomi and Sara have been apart. This period of time apart has given Naomi some room to relax and some room to worry about what her life would be like without her best friend.

During a video chat, where Sara drones on mostly about herself, she comes up with the idea of hosting a “welcome back” dinner party for herself and Naomi when Sara comes back to New York. Sara describes the party as a way to “celebrate our friendship, but it’s also about me a little bit.” Sara mentions that she can steal some of her mother’s inferior wine and bring it to the party. She also laughs when she pictures her mother finding the wine missing and how it will be fun to think about how annoyed her mother would be if her mother knew what happened to the wine.

One of the ways that the movie shows how different (and incompatible) Sara and Naomi are is when they talk about the Black Lives Matter protests over the deaths of George Floyd and other black people who were victims of police brutality. Naomi has been participating in these protests on the streets of New York City. She mentions that she always wears masks when she’s out in public.

Sara has a slightly disgusted and annoyed expression on her face when the Black Lives Matter protests are brought up in the conversation. She asks Naomi if it’s scary to be part of the protests. Naomi says it’s not scary. But later, in another conversation with two of her black female friends who are protesters in Los Angeles, they candidly discuss witnessing police brutality at the protests.

Naomi and Sara talk about the difference between peaceful protesting and rioting. Sara is inclined to think that rioters are part of the protest movement, while Naomi says that most rioters are not part of Black Lives Matter and other activist movements. Naomi does concede that when it comes to activism, she thinks, “You have to be a little violent to get things done.” The awkward silence and expression on Sara’s face say a lot after Naomi makes that comment.

During Naomi and Sara’s conversation, they also talk about a man in hs 20s named Reed, whom Naomi has been talking to online for the past four months. Because of the quarantine, Naomi and Reed haven’t been able to meet in person for a date yet, but they hope to do so in the near future. It would be Naomi’s first in-person date since the pandemic lockdown began. Instead of being happy for Naomi and telling her to be safe, Sara acts as if Naomi is going to put Sara’s life in serious jeopardy by being in contact with someone who doesn’t live in their household.

Sara puts up such a fuss about it that it unnerves Naomi. The rest of the movie shows Naomi debating with herself and other people if she should meet Reed for a date in person and if she should tell Sara about it. It’s not a problem that’s as superficial as it sounds. Viewers will see that how Naomi handles this date dilemma is a manifestation of how she’s been handling a lot of the control issues going in her friendship with Sara and how Naomi feels about herself.

“As of Yet” has a very small number of people in its cast, which will make this movie very easy to follow. Besides Sara, the other people Naomi talk to about Sara and Reed are:

  • Reed (played by Amir Khan), a geeky, long-haired “nice guy” who works in some kind of computer tech job. Since the quarantine, he’s been working from home and rewatching “Survivor” reruns.
  • Sadie (played by Paula Akpan), Naomi’s British cousin who’s openly queer, very outspoken and someone who definitely doesn’t approve of Sara.
  • Naomi’s parents, who are unnamed in the movie but are played by Taylor Garron’s real-life parents Colleen Pina Garron and Christopher Garron. Naomi talks to her mother longer in their conversation (her dad briefly pops into the conversation), and Sara’s close and loving relationship with her parents is very evident.
  • Lyssa (played by Quinta Brunson) and Khadijah (played by Ayo Edebiri), two of Naomi’s friends in Los Angeles. They both don’t like Sara because they think she makes Naomi feel insecure and anxious. Khadijah is more blunt and forthcoming than Lyssa in giving advice to Naomi on what to do about Sara.
  • An unnamed neighbor (played by Anthony Allman), who Naomi talks to randomly when he pokes her head out of her apartment window and sees him walking down the street.

During these conversations, viewers find out more things about Naomi. Her family has origins in Cape Verde. Her parents are passionate about social causes, and Naomi got her interest in being a civil rights activist from her parents. She’s a very loyal, funny and caring person. Her willingness to put the needs of others before her own needs is a virtue, but it can also be a fault because people like Sara have taken advantage of it. Naomi hints at past romances and heartbreaks because she made the mistake of trusting the wrong people.

Naomi loves to talk and has a very quick-witted, self-deprecating sense of humor. Reed is quieter and more laid-back. Reed and Naomi both like watching TV and they appreciate each other’s off-beat geekiness over TV shows. Naomi has an interesting quirk of having only watched one movie in her life: the 1995 comedy “Heavyweights,” starring Ben Stiller and Kenan Thompson, about a group of overweight teens sent to a weight-loss camp that’s run by a psycho fitness instructor.

Naomi and Reed’s conversations in the movie show that they have a comfortable rapport with each other, and they can make each other laugh. However, viewers will wonder how well Naomi really knows Reed. Have they had meaningful conversations that go deeper than joking around and talking about what TV shows they like to watch? Are they compatible, in terms of lifestyles and life goals? This movie offers no real answers to those questions, because it’s just a glimpse into Naomi’s life over a two-day period.

One of the most outstanding things about “As of Yet” is how all the conversations look authentic, almost like a documentary. It’s one thing for the screenplay to be well-written (and it is), but the cast members should also get credit for delivering the lines in a very naturalistic and convincing way. There isn’t one moment in this movie that looks overly staged and overly rehearsed.

And there are many details that add to the authenticity. Naomi isn’t afraid to be shown from some unflattering camera angles. At one point in the movie, her armpit hair is showing (but not during her conversations with Reed), and her mother reminds Naomi to shave her armpits before she meets Reed in person.

The movie also doesn’t shy away from the topic of race. When Naomi tells her family members and black friends about Reed, one of the first questions they ask is if Reed is black. Naomi talks about the Black Lives Matter protests in a different and more unguarded way with her black friends than she does with Sara. Naomi’s mother also tells her a great anecdote about her childhood experiences with the Black Panthers.

The movie’s one detail about race that might raise questions with viewers is why Naomi hasn’t asked Reed yet what race he is. (He’s American and his family’s ethnicity appears to be South Asian or possibly from the Middle East.) If you’ve been chatting with someone for several months and plan to go on a date with each other, it’s not unreasonable to ask that person what their racial/ethnic heritage is, as part of the “getting to know you” process.

Naomi says she hasn’t asked Reed because she thinks it would be rude to ask. But it kind of contradicts how Naomi keeps bragging to her loved ones about how she knows Reed well enough that she thinks he’s a good guy who would be safe to date. The fact that she’s afraid to ask Reed what race he is will make people wonder what other basic and reasonable questions Naomi hasn’t asked him.

It’s another layer to the story in “As of Yet,” which shows how in the early months of the pandemic, single people were trying to adjust to how dating was affected by the pandemic quarantine. Naomi has to grapple with these questions: What’s the proper etiquette of a first date, when it comes to mask wearing and social distancing? Is it really a good idea to date somene new during a lockdown quarantine?

How do you know who’s really safe and not infected, when COVID-19 test results are only valid for a very limited time? (And keep in mind, this movie takes place before any COVID-19 vaccines were available.) It’s a question that Naomi can’t really answer about Reed, but she makes several comments in her conversations that she’s sure that Reed is “safe,” just because he told her so.

Actually, she doesn’t know for sure if Reed has COVID-19 or not. Taking people’s word for it without proof is one of the main reasons why a lot of people got infected with COVID-19. And lot of people who infected others didn’t know they had COVID-19 because they didn’t show any symptoms at the time.

Naomi’s blind trust in Reed’s COVID-19 status is an example of her trusting nature, just like Sara’s over-reaction to Naomi possibly dating someone new during the quarantine is an example of her jealous and controlling nature. Viewers will find out how much of a loathsome hypocrite Sara is when it comes to COVID-19 safety. (It’s slight spoiler information that won’t be revealed in this review.)

Because “As of Yet” is a movie that takes place mostly on computer screens in people’s middle-class homes, there’s no flashy cinematography, elaborate set designs or fancy costumes. The movie, which is more suspenseful than people might think it would be, excels mainly because of the screenwriting and how well the cast members bring their characters to life. The movie might not satisfy people who want a predictable conclusion, but “As of Yet” will keep viewers entertained with some lively conversations along the way.