Jesse Eisenberg seems like an actor who was always destined to make a movie one day. It was simple a matter of time. Well, that day has arrived here at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Making his writing and directing debut with When You Finish Saving the World, Eisenberg shows off the same keen observational skills that he utilizes in front of the camera. Now behind it, he invests you in characters that are not always easy to like or root for. Kicking off Sundance, the film is small and quiet, but has enough to say about our modern culture that it’s not hard to recommend.
When You Finish Saving the World is a dramedy that never seems overly concerned with going too far in either direction. The comedy is sporadic and incredibly low-key, while the drama is never particularly intense. Mostly, it’s observational in its nature, watching our protagonists as they flounder, even if much of it is of their own making.
Evelyn (Julianne Moore) and Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard) are a mother and son who couldn’t be less alike. The former works at a shelter, taking in women and families in need of safety from domestic abuse. She means well, but she’s hopelessly uptight. The latter, however, is an influencer in the making. He performs original little songs for an online fandom that tips him generously, all from his bedroom studio. Evelyn and Ziggy confuse and annoy each other, incapable of seeing what the other is passionate about. Through it all, husband/father Roger (Jay O. Sanders) looks on with vague indifference. New people in their lives soon will give them an outlet for their desires, misguided as it may be.
While Evelyn makes increasingly desperate attempts to be a parental figure to Kyle (Billy Bryk), one of the teenagers at her shelter, Ziggy has more teenage ambitions. Crushing on a fellow student named Lila (Alisha Boe) at his High School, he begins a fumbling pursuit, hoping to use his music and her political activeness as a way of connecting. Of course, both Evelyn and Ziggy are unaware how odd they seem, nor do they seem to realize that what they’re looking for could literally be right under their own roof.
Julianne Moore and Finn Wolfhard are both very good here, especially considering how unlikable their characters are. Moore gets to play a total square, someone who wants to save the world but really doesn’t quite know how to do it. So, she grabs at anything. It’s not a showy performance, but it’s the type of thing she’s quite adept at. As for Wolfhard, he never tries to soften this self-centered teen’s sharp edges, allowing him to feel more realistic than the twee premise might suggest. Supporting players include the aforementioned Alisha Boe, Billy Bryk, and Jay O. Sanders, as well as Eleonore Hendricks, among others.
Making his filmmaking debut, Jesse Eisenberg is content to rely on his witty script and simple shot compositions. It’s not hard to see how this originated as an audio project, as it’s incredibly verbose. One can look at this and see a bright future behind the camera if Eisenberg wants it. At the same time, the flick is a little draggy, pacing wise, and things don’t quite grab your attention if you don’t make the effort. These are little issues, but they’re clearly there in a first time filmmaker’s work.
When You Finish Saving the World doesn’t start off Sundance with fireworks, but those of you who like character studies will find something to grab on to here. The festival is only a day old, so no big declarations can be made, but it seems like this will be one of the more middle of the road efforts. At the same time, on its own merits, this is well worth seeking out.