During an era in which fan service pop culture has become a standard (for better and for worse), seeing a film that challenges audiences with un-likability is fascinating. It’s obviously risky storytelling, as simple missteps can derail an effort into “unwatchable” territory, but balanced properly it can be its own kind of captivating and provide a distinctive perspective which movies that overly try to please cannot. Jesse Eisenberg’s When You Finish Saving The World is a genuine example of the latter, and all the more impressive because it is the Oscar-nominated actor’s debut as a writer/director.
When You Finish Saving The World premiered last night as a curtain-raiser for the all-virtual 2022 Sundance Film Festival, and it’s an odd feature to take that position given how it naturally divisive it is. It’s a movie that requires an audience to be tuned into its wavelength – but what you discover if you’re tuned in is a snarky, smart comment on egotism in modern liberal ideology, and also an often bitter but sometimes sweet mother/son story.
Adapted from Jesse Eisenberg’s Audie Award-winning audio drama of the same name, the film is quick to leave a bad impression with its characters – Evelyn Katz (Julianne Moore) making her entrance by shushing a co-worker’s birthday party, and her son Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard) crooning songs of teenage woe and virtually panhandling in a popular livestream before raging at his mom for having the audacity to knock on his door. We learn that they are noble in their aspirations, but also spectacularly narcissistic in their actions.
Ziggy, who doesn’t go anywhere without at least some form of self-branded clothing, claims that he wants to be more political in his music, but he has no opinions or cognizance of what’s happening in the world, and is in actuality far more focused on impressing his activist crush, Lila (Alisha Boe). This unfortunately also comes paired with a powerful lack of self-awareness, singing songs about fearing graduation during a meeting of progressive students sharing art about global issues.
Evelyn, meanwhile, is the director of a domestic abuse shelter and has a degree in social work, but she is consumed with resentment directed toward her narcissistic progeny, and acts to fill that void in her life. When she meets Kyle (Billy Bryk), the caring, thoughtful teenage son of a woman (Eleonore Hendricks) who becomes a resident of the shelter, she perceives an opportunity, and begins trying to guide his life and future to fit her own ideals and standards – remaining ignorant of his actual passions.
Jesse Eisenberg makes an impressive directorial debut with his tale of mother-and-son narcissists.
For his directorial debut, Jesse Eisenberg makes some bold choices, and he succeeds with a deft approach to tone that allows When You Finish Saving The World to function as a biting and funny commentary with dramatic subject matter. Its sweet spot is cringe comedy, and it delivers spectacularly in both narratives, but it also never feels mean, as the writer/director does give the characters moments of genuineness that allows you to see their hearts beating under many layers of self-absorption.
Both Ziggy and Evelyn are roles that require layered performances, and Finn Wolfhard (fresh off of last year’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife) and Julianne Moore are phenomenal and deliver ironically ego-free turns. They’re both typically so charming and charismatic on screen that there is something almost throttling to see them in these parts, but ultimately it’s a tribute to the impressive quality of their work in the film. And not only are they excellent in their respective stories, but they have a sharp, claws-out dynamic when they share scenes, and it can be both shocking and hilarious.
There’s a lot of what Jesse Eisenberg does best as an actor in When You Finish Saving The World, and it’s exciting to see him so quickly establish a prominent voice in his work as a filmmaker (like many great actor-cum-directors before him). It’s a surprising and impressive start to a new road in his career, and he’s going to have great success if he can continue to deliver unique perspectives and evoke more performances like these.
A24 is already on board to distribute the film, adding it to its excellent catalogue of indie movies, and while no release date has been announced, hopefully that will change soon.
NJ native who calls LA home; lives in a Dreamatorium. A decade-plus CinemaBlend veteran; endlessly enthusiastic about the career he’s dreamt of since seventh grade.
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