When You Finish Saving the World
- Director: Jesse Eisenberg
- Writers: Jesse Eisenberg
- Starring: Finn Wolfhard, Julianne Moore, Alisha Boe, Billy Bryk, Jay O. Sanders
Jesse Eisenberg’s first step behind the camera debuted almost exactly a year ago at the last Sundance Film Festival to an online audience after the festival went completely virtual due to the pandemic. There are films that manage to transcend the indie festival’s stereotypical quirks – films like Whiplash or Judas and the Black Messiah – and there are those that seem almost designed with the idea of airing there. Ultimately, When You Finish Saving the World feels more like the latter. It’s a decent dual character study that could have been better, more nuanced, than the final product.
Those typical Sundance films usually take place in a small town and revolve around a couple of misunderstood characters trying to get by in a world, or in a situation, they don’t understand. In this case, the setting is none other than Bloomington, Indiana – a town that Eisenberg has some long-standing ties to. And those misunderstood characters are primarily Ziggy Katz (Finn Wolfhard) and his mother Evelyn (Julianne Moore). Ziggy is an amateur musician, devoted to his loyal fans he live-streams to across the world, mostly situated in China. Wolfhard does an admirable job of portraying Ziggy as a misguided dreamer, a high schooler with no major prospects outside of music but believes he can achieve anything simply by wanting it hard enough.
Ziggy’s main focus of the film lies in attracting his crush Lila (Alisha Boe), who he perceives as out of his league mostly by being dedicated to political causes. While she debates topics like the border crisis or world hunger with her friends at lunch class, Ziggy tries to inject himself by bragging about the multicultural makeup of his fanbase. There could have been a way for Eisenberg to inject a sense of humanity to Ziggy, a reason to root for him beyond simply being the protagonist of the film – and beyond an empathetic performance from Wolfhard – but those sensibilities are largely lacking.
Meanwhile, Evelyn, the manager at a shelter for women, tries desperately to connect with Ziggy, but their clashing personalities prevent it from happening. It’s not unlike the mother-daughter relationship at the heart of Lady Bird, but it lacks that film’s sharp dialogue and wit. Nevertheless, Moore gives the type of performance we’ve come to expect from a long and great career. She’s always excelled at playing characters who are barely hanging on, but still exhibit a great deal of love, and Evelyn is no exception. She begins connecting with Kyle (Billy Bryk), the son of a new resident, who just happens to be the same age as her own son. This sets the course for the second half of the film, as Evelyn seeks to find a surrogate son, and Ziggy seeks to find, well, anyone he can connect with.
Eisenberg’s talents throughout When You Finish Saving the World lie not as much in the script, but in the directing. He shows a natural talent for blocking and where to place the camera to create a dynamic image. If Eisenberg worked with the right material, he could be a formidable director. But, as it stands, his debut film is a tonal misfire, unsure if it’s a satire on the follies of youth or an exploration of two lost souls. That’s not to say the film is unpleasant though; at only 88 minutes, it never slows down or becomes repetitive, and it’s buoyed by the solid performances of its two leads. When You Finish Saving the World is also based on Eisenberg’s award winning Audible Original of the same name, which spans over five hours in comparison, and deals with the same family’s struggles over a longer time period. Perhaps there were budgetary or creative concerns that prevented a more expansive film, but something must have been lost in translation.
When You Finish Saving the World will be released in theaters nationwide on January 20.
- Distributor A24’s decision to delay the film’s release for a full year indicates it didn’t have much faith in its awards potential, and they were correct. Moore is already an Oscar winner, and most everyone else involved will have ample opportunities for Oscar buzz in the future.