We all had to find a way to stay busy during the pandemic. For most of us, we ventured into hobbies we never had time for, pushing ourselves to learn something new given the plethora of free time while the world was turned upside down. Artists, though, continued to create projects for themselves to scratch the creative itch till they were able to go back to their film sets or to the theater to pick up the pieces of what was left two years ago. Oscar–nominated Jesse Eisenberg spent this time writing and performing in an award–winning audio drama titled When You Finish Saving the World. In an effort to tackle the complexities of raising a child, and said child growing up in modern world, Eisenberg’s story spanned decades to create well rounded characters. But in the film adaptation, in an effort to strip things back, loses a lot of the layers and diverges into two narrative paths that don’t ultimately connect.
On one side, we have Evelyn (Academy Award winner Julianne Moore), a devoted wife and mother who runs a local shelter for victims of domestic violence. She is reserved, and doesn’t allow herself to attach to her co-workers, as well as the people staying at the shelter. By doing this, she keeps neutrality, not investing herself in individual successes. Instead, she focuses on her job and fighting for something she fell in love with when she was in college, public service. Whether it is new paint for the parking spaces outside or windows that need repairs, her mind is always on others rather than herself. It’s an exhausting yet rewarding occupation that she never seems to take for granite. But when she goes home, she comes face to face with her ultimate challenge, and the other side of the film, her son Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard (of TV’s Stranger Things fame).
Ziggy is a high schooler by day, internet folk rock singer by night, who locks himself in his room every night and logs on to a live stream with his 20,000 followers from around the world. To him, music and making money is his life, while also being the ticket to get away from his mother and their small town once and for all. Evelyn, uninterested in this musical venture, dismisses Ziggy’s talent, not seeing the value both monetarily or personally it is to her son. Thus, the two clash in just about every interaction we see them in. Stuck in the middle is Roger (Jay O. Sanders), husband and father to our two protagonists who mostly sits idly by while these two steam trains collide right in front of him as he sips quietly on his evening wine.
It’s in these moments where the film is at its best, with Moore and Wolfhard go toe to toe in this struggle for two people to understand one another. They are clearly alike, though they refuse to see it, and can’t function around each other too much without exploding. But instead of getting these two in a room or more situations together throughout the film to resolve their issues, Eisenberg script gives them other side-plots to explore their unfocused vision of what they want not just from each other, but from life in general.
For Evelyn, she becomes attached to a young boy in her shelter, whose mother just arrived after her husband abused them and they had no place to go. In carrying conversations with him in and out of the shelter, Evelyn sees an avenue to project her wants of Ziggy on to this other boy, and in doing so, betrays her ethical code to her job and herself. This is where Moore shines the most, when she pushes her character to ultimately become obsessive over someone, or something, she can’t control.
As for Ziggy, he has a crush on a girl named Lila (Alisha Boe), who is politically conscious, and clashes with Ziggy’s set of ideals and what his internet success means in the grand scheme of the world. In an effort to impress her, he tries to write a political song, but nothing comes out. He talks to Evelyn about how to become political, to which she tells her son, whom she gave these tools at a young age to be the person he wants to be for Lila but threw them away as he grew up, that you have to put in the work, read and listen, and become a part of something bigger than himself. But Ziggy doesn’t want that, he wants a shortcut, and suffers consequences for taking the easy way around. Wolfhard perfectly captures the Gen Z confusion mixed with laziness and selfishness, as his character only really ever cares about himself, rather than others. His performance is the stand out of the film.
As two character studies of the past and the present generation, they sound good on paper, but doesn’t work in the final product. Their tones are too different to make an effective film overall. Evelyn’s storyline plays as a thriller, while Ziggy’s plays an indie-coming of age comedy, and when they are together, it’s a family drama. Juggling these styles would be tough for even an experienced director, and while Eisenberg tries alongside his editor Sara Shaw to piece this story together, they just can’t stick the landing and bring it all together. It unevenly flows as each moment passes. If there is supposed to be a lesson for this mother and son to learn from, then it’s nonexistent because there doesn’t seem to be a ton of growth for either one of them, thus when we get to the final shot, it feels like meat was left on the bone of this story and ten to fifteen more minutes of emotional catharsis was cut for no reason.
Eisenberg’s influences are clearly pronounced due to When You Finish Saving the World feeling like a cross between a Noah Baumbach comedy and a Riley Stern’s drama, two directors the actor has work with previously in his career to great success. The problem is, when Eisenberg was working on those films (The Squid and the Whale and The Art of Self-Defense), those movies had confident director vision, firecracker scripts, and a clear message behind them, which this one doesn’t. The one thing Eisenberg does get from his crafts team that his former directors got is a beautiful, subtle score from Minari composer Emile Mosseri. This is not to say Eisenberg won’t find his voice or rhythm down the road with another project behind the camera, he very well could. But with this film, he leaves a lot to be desired.
This review is from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. A24 will release When You Finish Saving the World later this year. Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute.