Sundance is no stranger to highly anticipated directorial debuts. This year it’s Jesse Eisenberg with his new film “When You Finish Saving the World”. The movie is based on Eisenberg’s own award-winning 2020 audio drama of the same name which revolves around a mother and her son separated by the ever widening generational gap between them. Starring the always terrific Julianne Moore and rising star Finn Wolfhard, this was one of the most intriguing films on the Sundance program.
Already backed by A24, “When You Finish Saving the World” has an interesting premise and features the kind of snappy wry humor you would imagine coming from Jesse Eisenburg. At the same time, there’s a toxicity to this small yet well conceived drama that will make it a tough watch for some audiences. Most of our time is spent with two characters who can be endearing but are almost always insufferable.
In fairness, that doesn’t make “When You Finish Saving the World” a bad movie. It gets back to that age-old discussion about the necessity of “likable” characters. I’ve said it before, I’ve never demanded “likable” characters. Doing so would dramatically limit the kinds of stories I allow myself to be told. But Eisemberg’s characters, Evelyn (Moore) and Ziggy (Wolfhard) aren’t one-note and they aren’t easily categorized. They have layers. It’s just that peeling them back isn’t particularly pleasant.
To be so at odds, Evelyn and Ziggy have several things in common. They’re just from two completely opposite worlds. They’re both condescending and narcissistic. Both are stubborn and strong-willed to a fault. And neither can understand the other nor do they put much effort into trying.
Evelyn has a poorly veiled obsessive personality and she believes her way of doing things is THE right way. She loves classical music and relishes her position as the head of a domestic abuse shelter. To Evelyn, she’s doing the kind of work that “matters”. Ziggy is brash, self-centered and impertinent, often lashing out at his parents in ways that would have left me grounded for a decade. He writes and plays his own songs which he describes as “classic folk rock with alternative influences”. He then livestreams them for his 20,000 followers on a YouTube-like platform called High-Hat.
Eisenberg puts a lot of effort into showing this daughter/son clash of ideals and values. But while they live in their own generational bubbles, there are attempts on both parts the bridge the gap. Ziggy seeks his mom’s help with impressing a left-wing activist classmate named Lila (Alisha Boe). Evelyn invites her son to come do some part-time work at her shelter. Neither attempt goes well.
The movie is helped along by a collection of interesting performances, particularly from its two leads. Moore wonderfully portrays a woman doing everything she can to hide her unhappiness. She puts up a facade of confidence and fulfillment, but it cracks and crumbles as the movie progresses. Wolfhard nicely juggles Ziggy’s many contradictions. He’s cocky and obnoxious at home, but elsewhere he’s awkward and often oblivious. We also get a scene-stealing Jay O. Sanders as the husband and father who often finds himself caught in the middle of Evelyn and Ziggy’s warfare.
There’s a lot to like about “When You Finish Saving the World”. You can tell that Eisenberg has a good sense for creating characters and telling their stories. With splashes of satire mixed with deep human drama, his behind-the-camera debut is both intimate and ambitious. Yet there’s that lingering toxic element that always keeps the two lead characters at arms length. It makes it hard for us to feel either empathy or sympathy. And by the time their repressed charm and compassion finally comes into view, the caustic back-and-forths have taken their toll.