In his bitterly funny, clear-eyed debut as a feature director, When You Finish Saving the World, Jesse Eisenberg targets the kind of vanities and confused motives that fueled his breakthrough film as an actor, 2005’s The Squid and the Whale.
Here, as in Noah Baumbach’s feature, parenting exists mostly as a means of putting one’s intellectual or moral pretensions on display — and heaven help the son who has outgrown being Mom’s mascot. As ghastly as that mother can be, though, Eisenberg musters more empathy than Baumbach did, and is smart enough, in casting Julianne Moore, to ensure the audience will eventually see the relatable core of need within her. Playing her son, Finn Wolfhard looks completely comfortable stepping away from the genre fare that has made him famous; he’ll likely help attract viewers to a film with cross-generational appeal.
When You Finish Saving the World
A funny, uncomfortable feature debut.
Adapted from an audio drama of the same name that Eisenberg released in 2020 (Wolfhard was in that as well), the story centers on the Katzes, an educated Indiana family whose members aren’t what you’d call close. Evelyn and Roger (Moore and Jay O. Sanders) are the kind of privileged, self-satisfied folks who can make even a valid opinion sound fatuous.
Instinctively rejecting their worldview, Ziggy (Wolfhard) has found an identity as a songwriter on social media, where fans around the world tune into his livestreams. He spends his evenings sequestered in a studio adjoining his bedroom, getting understandably pissed when Evelyn blithely interrupts his streaming sessions.
However little attention she pays to her son’s needs, Evelyn has built a career on caring for others. She founded and runs a shelter for victims of domestic abuse, and, despite being clueless about interpersonal expressions of warmth and happiness, is good at protecting strangers. (In a scene where she steps away from her duties to scold workers celebrating a birthday, Moore and Eisenberg eloquently illustrate the disconnect.)
Evelyn’s a do-gooder who doesn’t seem to like people, in other words. But she takes an unexpected shine to one of her new residents: a high schooler named Kyle (Billy Bryk), whose compassion and emotional smarts are made more impressive by his extreme humility. Evelyn starts putting him to work around the center, and offers much more advice about his future than he seems comfortable accepting. Does she want to sleep with this handsome boy? Or is she just projecting onto him all the long-abandoned dreams she had for her own son? Either way, Moore depicts a woman incapable of pausing long enough to consider how her efforts will make others feel, whether she’s casually belittling Ziggy’s songwriting efforts or cajoling a stranger’s son to have dinner alone with her.
Evelyn’s dismissals roll off Ziggy’s back, bolstered as he is by his 20,000 worldwide followers and the official validation of his social platform of choice. He can’t introduce himself to a stranger without squeezing these details in. But not everyone is impressed, or shares his over-reliance on teen slang the movie probably invented. (Is “lift” the new “lit”? Is “tera” a prefix, as in “it’s actually tera-sophisticated”?)
Take Lila (Alisha Boe), a politically enlightened girl who speaks with the moral confidence of someone who’s already got several semesters of college under her belt. Ziggy can only stare slackjawed at her, desperate to leap into her conversations despite knowing nothing about the issues that move her. Is he in love, or just dying to learn how he can be so charismatically passionate?
Eisenberg observes the two Katzes’ stories for a while before it’s clear how much alike they are, then connects the dots gently — starting with a “what happened to my little boy?” conversation whose poignancy is only slightly skewed by Evelyn’s cluelessness about the capacity of a five year-old to comprehend political movements. Both are ambitious and energetic; neither fully understands what fuels that motivation. Ziggy’s confusion presents some familiar possibilities, storytelling-wise. But his efforts to win Lila’s respect don’t religiously hit the beats of the coming-of-age template.
If the film occasionally paints with a broad brush (Ziggy’s lingo; the teen political clubhouse whose members seem to be cosplaying the Dust Bowl or the Cultural Revolution), those rare exaggerated elements never threaten its realism or make it feel snarky. This isn’t a skewering of the upper-middle-class or a mockery of half-hearted American guilt. That open-ended title is ambiguous for a reason, potentially applying to a few different characters. But there’s little doubt about the scale and sincerity of the clause that should follow it — a reminder that, whatever global, never-ending fights there are to join, the individuals standing right around you deserve your attention as well. And you may never be satisfied until you give it to them.