This review of Jesse Eisenberg’s When You Finish Saving the World is part of our 2022 Sundance Film Festival coverage. For more reviews and essays, visit our Sundance tab.
Who are you? This is a question never asked in Jesse Eisenberg‘s feature directorial debut, When You Finish Saving the World. A mother and son assume the answer, however, imprisoned within their skulls, their perspectives fueling animosity and disgust, creating opponents where family once existed.
Evelyn (Julianne Moore) doesn’t understand the creature living in her son’s room. Advantageously, she lost interest in him years ago. Now she commits everything to the battered woman’s shelter she operates. When a guest’s son proves to be everything she wanted her own child to be, a poisonous infatuation musters.
Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard) once attended his mother’s rallies and howled protest songs alongside her. Now, he keeps his door locked, achieving relief from his parents through his online activities. He’s a folk-rock singer, performing to thousands plugged in across the globe. He delivers them slight, inexperienced lyrics, and they shower him with affection and digital dollars.
Internet stardom is enough to keep Ziggy occupied until hormones take over, and they lead him toward Lila (Alisha Boe) and her political fervor. She rages against the planet’s infinite injustices, and Ziggy wants in on that passion even if he doesn’t have the knowledge or the legit interest to appreciate it. When he turns to his mother for guidance, Evelyn laughs him off. He had his chance to get involved, and his childish rejection of her good work sparks aggression and anger.
Moore and Wolfhard project an anti-chemistry in When You Finish Saving the World. They repel each other, but in that revulsion is a compelling watchability. Neither charms through their characters’ insufferable nature; they lean in. Moore, in particular, chews into Evelyn’s superiority, carefully mediating condescension, letting it forever simmer until the scene calls for her to hit 10, and then she takes it to 11.
From the jump, Wolfhard has a target on his back. As the Zoomer plunging into an exaggerated internet space, the cheap jabs are delivered upon Ziggy first. Wolfhard never winks or retreats, running headfirst into Eisenberg’s attacks. If enough people actually experience When You Finish Saving the World, there’s a chance that Ziggy, as a perpetually cloying creation, could stain the actor. Once seen, that kid cannot be unseen: watchability teetering on punchability.
When Ziggy and Evylyn share their first scene, they seem like opposites. Then we witness them interact with others, and we see how they inject themselves into every conversation. All stories are opportunities to make them their stories. Nothing has ever happened to another person that they cannot assimilate and reflect as their own escapade. Their desires may not match, but their tunnel vision is identical.
Moore and Wolfhard solidify Ziggy and Evelyn as mother and son, and these are characters that boil blood. They raise the temperature of every room they walk in. Their incessant sniping and socially illiterate behavior grind on their audience. But at a certain point, you should lock your eyeballs forward; resist the rolling back. Beyond their agro is a disastrous inability to connect, and it echoes our feelings toward them and toward the many people we probably dismiss as dumbasses in our daily lives.
As the script (also written by Eisenberg) drops its breadcrumbs, a curiosity is initiated. There is a history to Evelyn and Ziggy’s behavior, and as we begin to recognize it, we hope for them to see it, too. A bridge can be built through fascination and scrutiny.
Eisenberg’s petition for considered observation is initiated almost immediately. He opens his film by turning it on, allowing hundreds of screens to appear on black, and inside each one is a beaming Ziggy admirer. As we pull away from them, through Ziggy’s monitor, over his shoulder, and across his room, the camera plants his studio window between him and us.
When You Finish Saving the World fills its shots with frames within frames. Eisenberg places his subjects in numerous metaphorical apertures: mirrors, doorframes, corridors, car windshields, etc. He never wants you to forget you’re watching people watch people who then treat them like cinematic subjects. Judgment flows from Ziggy and Evelyn; they scoff at others as we would yell at slasher movie dopes descending into dank, dark basements or at mothers and sons obstinately disregarding the reality around them.
At one point, Ziggy attempts to explain his online life as a vacation for others. Through his music, he offers freedom from the dull bits; it’s simple escapist fun. And that’s a label that several people slather onto movies, but escapism is not what cinema provides, and to reduce it to such ignores its actual purpose.
Movies are not portals away. Movies are portals within. Yes, even Star Wars, but especially When You Finish Saving the World. A movie is an invitation into other perspectives, or as Roger Ebert famously called the medium, “a machine that generates empathy.” We step into Jesse Eisenberg’s domestic combat, and we try it on and compare it to our familial bouts. Through this fitting, we summon an understanding apart from our brains and our hard-practiced notions.
Eisenberg challenges our stamina. His movie drags us through Ziggy and Evelyn’s rigorous self-supremacy, offering respite only in knowing barbs fired at their expense. The ridicule acknowledges our building contempt for mother and son, but it’s not enough to hang a movie. These two have to step away from themselves, but the action may come too little too late for a satisfying conclusion.
When You Finish Saving the World demands compassion from its audience. The worry is that there’s little to give before the movie even starts, let alone concludes. Where you fall on these two probably indicates where you fall with your own family. Are you making dinners work, or are you finding dinners elsewhere?
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