The concept of When You Finish Saving The World could have easily been twisted down a different path in the hands of a different filmmaker. With stars Julianne Moore and Finn Wolfhard, we might have seen an earnest coming-of-age story with an awkward young romance with Alisha Boe’s activist Lila, or perhaps a turn to the more horrific as Moore’s Evelyn lords over a young man (Billy Bryk) at her women’s shelter trying desperately to force him into the role of a social worker unconscious of her the power she holds over him and his mother. Instead, in Jesse Eisenberg’s directorial debut, we get something in between and it’s not necessarily better for it.
While actors who turn to filmmaking often have the benefit of having worked with prestigious auteurs, Eisenberg doesn’t seem to really have a defined tone or style in this first feature like the directors he’s acted for in the past. Wolfhard plays Ziggy Katz, a popular folk-rock star on a streamer similar to Twitch, who is charming if rather surface-level when it comes to politics. Moore plays Evelyn Katz, Ziggy’s mother, and a rather self-righteous character who runs a shelter for the survivors of domestic abuse. At a naturally rebellious age, Ziggy and Evelyn are constantly butting heads in their upper-middle-class middle-America suburban home.
What follows is — to put it plainly — a movie about white people problems. There’s no real conflict in When You Finish Saving the World, not really. Because it tries so hard to compare and contrast Ziggy and Evelyn it fails at really leaning into one or the other with any inspired storytelling. Ziggy is a curious character because he was raised by an activist mother who once used to bring him to protests, proudly calling him her little ally. Now, he is a musician who might come off as obsessed with his own fame but is really no more obsessed with going viral than anyone else today.
There’s a kind of old-person mentality when it comes to Ziggy and his classmates. He’s out of touch and far too superficial and his woke classmates do nothing but talk about politics and attend performances at cafes where they sing about human rights in faraway places. It’s unclear what generation Eisenberg is talking to since neither representation is truly authentic. Eisenberg, who once infamously played Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, approaches young people with about the same mentality that the real-life Zuck does.
More intriguing is Evelyn, who reaches peak levels of cringe in her interaction with Billy Bryk’s Kyle. The interesting aspects of the film lie in her manipulation and control over Kyle, pushing him to attend a university when he wants to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a car mechanic. As a clear intellectual, it’s quite obvious that Evelyn thinks Kyle is better than his dream, and what she interprets as empathy and consideration in Kyle is merely politeness and the fear that his mother might lose her place in the shelter.
But, Moore’s performance is about as nuanced as the flashing red recording light above Ziggy’s door. It’s frustrating to watch her pushing around Kyle but then the ending is also painfully underwhelming. Again, perhaps Eisenberg might have leaned into the discomfort we feel with Evelyn and turned more insidious in a thriller, but instead, it ends as you would expect. Making little impact, Jesse Eisenberg’s debut feature is just okay. Is there anything really comedic about this? Not unless you count a couple of wince-inducing cringe moments. With a confusing audience, neither Eisenberg nor his protagonists can really save this film or the world.
This film review was based on the premiere at Sundance Film Festival 2022. Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute.