Everyone wants to believe they’re doing something important. Something of value that somehow helps improve life. While some people are enacting societal change or making breakthroughs in medicine, others have more localized, approachable ways of bettering the world. In Jesse Eisenberg‘s directorial debut, When You Finish Saving the World, an adaptation of the podcast drama of the same name, a mother and son have trouble getting along. They butt heads not over personal space or beliefs, but rather how influential their disparate life’s callings are.
Julianne Moore‘s Evelyn is a firm but permissive mother and social worker who runs a shelter for those in need. Her teenage son, Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard), is an internet musician whose lo-fi songs reach people all across the world. While the parent and child don’t often see eye to eye, their discord has more to do with a failure to tolerate each other’s vocation rather than anything deep-seated or ominous. For instance, Evelyn is all but condescending about her son’s music while Ziggy shows no appreciation for what his mother does for strangers every day.
Evelyn and Ziggy’s fleeting yet recurring animosity is nothing new for father and husband Roger (Jay O. Sanders); their upper-middle-class home is fairly liberal with no specific set of rules for Ziggy to abide by. The son openly swears with no sign of discomfort from his folks, and even when he crosses a line with either of them, neither Evelyn nor Roger are willing to reprimand him. It’s an unorthodox situation, to say the least. Ziggy’s parents treat him more like an adult in every regard except for his music; they are perpetually nonplussed by his interest, and they continue to act like it’s not important.
The film is largely split between two stories when it’s not urging its protagonists to convene for more desultory mother-son conversations. Evelyn is consumed with a teenager, Kyle (Billy Bryk), the son of a woman (Eleonore Hendricks) staying at the shelter due to an abusive situation at home. Moore’s character attaches herself to Kyle after seeing how sensitive and mature he is in light of his mother’s case. She sees something in him that she no longer sees in her own son. Meanwhile, Ziggy is totally enamored with a classmate, Lila (Alisha Boe). He wants to impress her by pretending to be interested in politics and environmentalism. The irony here is of course Ziggy makes no attempt to understand his mother’s line of work, something not that far removed from what Lila is interested in.
When You Finish Saving the World follows two very different people who simply misunderstand one another. There is no genuine spite here, and most refreshingly, there is certainly no melodrama. The main characters’ personal endeavors — more like unhealthy, self-serving fixations — induce a fair amount of cringing on the audience’s part, but the actors’ performances are unwavering. Wolfhard has a solid grasp of Eisenberg’s creative mannerisms at times, whereas Moore makes Evelyn’s arrogance tolerable.
This isn’t quite the intense character study it sets itself up to be. By no means are the people lacking in distinct personalities and inner unrest. However, by the time Evelyn and Ziggy’s epiphanies do come along, the film is essentially over. Resolution comes in the form of assumption rather than anything tangible or especially gratifying. The story has only cracked the shell of the egg without letting the yolk fall out.
Although Eisenberg’s debut may not be utterly world-changing with its eager but half-done approach to moderately dysfunctional families, it does show promise for the actor-turned-filmmaker.
When You Finish Saving the World premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2022.