When You Finish Saving the World, 2022.
Written and directed by Jesse Eisenberg.
Starring Finn Wolfhard, Julianne Moore, and Alisha Boe.
Evelyn and her oblivious son Ziggy seek out replacements for each other as Evelyn desperately tries to parent an unassuming teenager at her shelter, while Ziggy fumbles through his pursuit of a brilliant young woman at school.
Jesse Eisenberg’s toe-curler of a directorial debut adapts his 2020 audiobook When You Finish Saving the World into an impressively confident black comedy about a mother and son’s failure to connect with each other and the world around them.
High-schooler Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard) is a folk-rock musician who livestreams performances to his growing fanbase on the TikTok-adjacent social media platform Hi-Hat. His daily experiences couldn’t be more opposite of his mother Evelyn (Julianne Moore), a bookish but well-meaning woman who runs a shelter for domestic abuse survivors.
While Ziggy attempts to make his music more political in order to win over his classmate-crush Lila (Alisha Boe), Evelyn seeks to compensate for her lacking connection with her son by growing close to Kyle (Billy Bryk), a good-hearted 17-year-old boy who lives in the shelter with his mother, and onto whom Evelyn projects a lot.
Eisenberg’s film makes little attempt to sugar-coat the fact that Ziggy and Evelyn are self-involved, hypocritical people, and simply not that easy to like. The means through which they serve others are ultimately all about serving themselves and finding the fulfillment they’re otherwise lacking.
Despite their polar experiences, mother and son both harbour the same desperation to be seen, heard, and connect with others. By film’s end audiences will surely have to consider what the sadder sight is – Evelyn drinking a glass of wine while sat on the toilet, or Ziggy masturbating to some of Lila’s fiery political poetry.
Though certainly pitiable characters, they’re not wholly unsympathetic, because Eisenberg never quite lets either Ziggy’s music-streamer or Evelyn’s sad-sack descend into caricature. Eisenberg’s assured tonal control is all the more impressive considering how easily its uniquely styled – some might say “quirky” – dialogue could sink the authenticity of the entire thing.
And yet, the deliciously deprecating dialogue cuts through both focal characters’ fast-eroding dignity like a samurai sword through warm butter. Some might groan at Ziggy’s bizarre use of slang – saying “tera lift” in lieu of “very cool” – but that’s clearly the intent. He’s a one-man cringe factory who we hope might grow a soul by picture’s end.
Eisenberg, who has spent a good portion of his career playing awkward characters and making audiences squirm, has delivered a spine-tinglingly embarrassing dark comedy that wouldn’t need much encouragement to descend into outright horror. It is an A24 movie after all.
This mood is especially well-wrought by Julianne Moore, fashioning Evelyn as a woman forever on the verge of tears who sounds like a psychopath even when she wishes a co-worker happy birthday (“congratulations on your birthday, Leslie”). Depression seems a likely diagnosis, but there’s little desire here to pathologise, and Moore avoids the cliched tics which a less-experienced performer might rely on.
She’s certainly the more inherently interesting of the two characters, a source of both sadness and perverse laughs; an hilariously tragic narcissist possibly teetering on the precipice of a mental breakdown, who “cheats” on her family by befriending somebody else’s 17-year-old son.
Yet Finn Wolfhard is nothing if not perfectly cast as the good-vibes live-streamer who becomes a more typically prickly teenager once the world isn’t watching him. He’s aggressively pretentious in a way that’s totally believable, and despite how pathetic his attempts to write good music genuinely are, the slivers of humanity that soak through prevent him from becoming detestable.
One of the film’s slyer gags involves the near-non-presence of Evelyn’s husband and Ziggy’s father Roger, played with an amusingly laid-back detachment by Jay O. Sanders. “Everyone around me is a narcissist,” he bluntly tells his wife and son when they forget to attend an awards ceremony honouring him because they’re so wrapped up in their own dramas. Hilariously, Roger seems like he positively has his shit together compared to the rest of his family, or in the very least seems content to pour himself a glass of Malbec and accept the situation.
Though the cutting back and forth between mother and son’s delineated scenarios sometimes feels a little frustrating given that Evelyn’s arc is clearly much stronger dramatically, both sides of the story ultimately coalesce in satisfying fashion. Evelyn and Ziggy’s more emotionally charged confrontations are among the film’s sure highlights, and it certainly builds to a stirring climax, even with this 88-minute sprint of a movie cutting off before it can provide all the answers.
When You Finish Saving the World makes it abundantly clear that Eisenberg has been paying close attention to the many great filmmakers he’s worked with over the years. At the same time, this doesn’t smack much at all of a typical Actor’s First Feature, which often drip with a quiet desperation that they want everyone to know they’re a Real Director. Eisenberg’s filmmaking is certainly clear-eyed – aided by Benjamin Loeb’s appealingly colour-washed cinematography – but there’s little sense here that he’s trying to much imitate a former boss.
It’s always exciting to see an actor successfully leap to the other side of the camera, and this nimble debut suggests its filmmaker may have even better to offer us in the future. Jesse Eisenberg makes a perceptive, dryly funny debut that never forgets its troubling characters’ inner humanity thanks to top-notch work from Finn Wolfhard and especially Julianne Moore.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.