‘When You Finish Saving the World’ Sundance Review: Jesse Eisenberg’s debut scratches the surface of a great movie, but falls slightly short.

Director(s): Jesse Eisenberg

Writer(s): Jesse Eisenberg

Cast: Finn Wolfhard, Julianne Moore

Jesse Eisenberg, likely known best for his Oscar nominated turn as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, is looking to become the next great actor turned filmmaker with his writing/directing debut. When You Finish Saving the World was chosen to be the opener for the 2022 Sundance Film Fest, which makes it the follow up to the 2021 phenomenon CODAone of my top 5 movies of 2021. CODA took the world by storm as being not just a feel-good movie, but a really good one as well. One that was good enough to warm the hearts of critics, fans, and awards voters, as it is likely to pick up a number of nominations this Oscar season. Let me tell you, this is no CODA.

When You Finish Saving the World, already under distribution from A24, tells the story of Evelyn (Julianne Moore) and her son Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard), a mother/son duo that couldn’t be more different in every way. Ziggy is a semi-famous internet musician on the streaming platform hi-hat performing what he calls a mix of alternative, folk, and rock, music his classical listening mother would never put on unless she was forced to. Evelyn works at a shelter where she takes in abused mothers and children and gives them a place to stay.

Like Ziggy’s character, this movie has a lot it wants to say, but never quite finds out how to say it. The message is clear, a disconnected mother and son have to learn about one another through other people. The problem comes in this movies inability to come to any sort of real depth within these characters or stories.

Both Ziggy and Evelyn are both extremely unlikable characters. The don’t like each other, and the father, played by Jay O. Sanders, says it best when he tells the pair, “Everyone around me is a narcissist.” These characters played by Wolfhard and Moore are narcissistic, and so far in their own headspace that they completely shut out the world around them. They both claim they want to save the world, and they both are in extremely opportune positions to do so. Ziggy’s music reaches tens of thousands of people around the globe while Evelyn’s shelter protects women who feel as though they have no other option.

The disconnect between Ziggy and Evelyn wind up not just effecting themselves, but the people around them as well. For Ziggy, he wants nothing more than to be involved in real global political issues. However, he doesn’t want to be involved in these things to create any sort of change, he wants to be involved because the people around him – especially Lila (Alisha Boe) – is interested in change. He has a large platform, and pretends he wants to help the people he is reaching out to, but his version of helping is being a “vacation” from the horrors some of his fans have to experience every day. He only ever wants to help if he can also find a way to win as well, whether that be through money, or through the love of his fans.

While for Evelyn, she doesn’t care for the son she was given, she wants a son in her image. One that appeases her disappointment in the kid she raised. Doing this, she projects onto a vulnerable teenager in an effort to mold him into the son she always wanted. Like Ziggy, she says she has good reasoning behind what she is doing, but the interest of the kid, Kyle (Billy Bryk), is never of interest to her. She believes she knows what is best for him, because that is what will ultimately make her feel like she accomplished her motherly duties.

Luckily, the performance from Finn Wolfhard is easily the best of his career, and the one from Julianne Moore is some of her best work in years. While these characters might not be the most likable, both Wolfhard and Moore keep the audience engaged into the story it is trying to tell. There were many moments where their performances carried the scene when the structure of the script failed to do so.

Jesse Eisenberg’s script is almost what you would expect from the actor. It is witty and relatable in some places and awkward and cringey in others. It gets the dialogue almost always right, but the structure falters as the build up of this film never allows the audience to get fully invested in the story. Many different moments throughout felt like a puzzle with pieces missing, and instead of trying to find the ones that fit, Eisenberg just shoved in what he could and sent it on its way. Some of the film would be just hitting its stride and then it would halt in its tracks and go a different direction. His writing and direction wasn’t bad, just felt incomplete when it came to the larger story being told.

Sadly for Eisenberg, the best work of the film came right at the end. The ending of this movie is where I felt Eisenberg was fully in control and really knew what he was going for. The tension and dichotomy between Evelyn and Ziggy’s climaxes were displayed and told well, and the falling action to the conclusion all amounted to a satisfyingly heartfelt ending. There just wasn’t enough for the audience to latch on to during the first two acts of this film to make the emotional ending really punch like it should have.

Jesse Eisenberg’s debut scratches the surface of a great movie, but falls slightly short. It isn’t necessarily bad in any sense of the word, but it is undeniably underwhelming. The lack of emotional depth or connection with any of the characters made it hard to truly appreciate the ending. That being said, there were some genuine moments I enjoyed, and strong performances from Julianne Moore and Finn Wolfhard help keep the viewer engaged; the film as a whole just couldn’t bring it all together neatly.

Grade: B-

2022 Film Rankings

Jacob is a film critic and co-founder of the Music City Drive-In. He is a member of the Music City Film Critics’ Association and specializes in the awards season. You can find him on Twitter @Tberry57.

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