Written and Directed by Jesse Eisenberg.
Starring Julianne Moore, Finn Wolfhard, Billy Bryk, Alisha Boe, Jack Justice, Jay O. Sanders, Eléonore Hendricks, Catherine Haun, Annacheska Brown, Sara Anne, Laura Love Tode, Mimi Fletcher, Jordyn Aurora Aquino, Monica Sanchez, Sharon Anne Henderson, Kenneth McGlothin, and Jeanette Aguilar Harris.
Evelyn and her oblivious son Ziggy seek out replacements for each other. As Evelyn tries to parent an unassuming teenager at her shelter, Ziggy fumbles through his pursuit of a brilliant young woman at school.
Jesse Eisenberg’s writing/directorial debut, When You Finish Saving the World, isn’t necessarily a good movie but an engaging one that’s difficult to stop thinking about.
Based on his audio drama from 2020 (which featured three separate storylines, cut down into one for this adaptation), which in part draws some inspiration from personal experience, there are parts when the film is aware that these characters are insufferable narcissists and that the tone wants us to laugh at their self-absorbed nature, but just as many that turn serious as if we are meant to feel touching emotional impact. The latter fails nearly every time, eventually reaching an unearned heavy-handed ending.
Still, the film is also taking into a type of character that hasn’t been explored much yet, one specific to modern times; the self-absorbed livestreamer. Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard) is a high school senior living a privileged life with a massive streaming following for his musical prowess. He writes somewhat basic original songs palatable to a global audience and puts on concerts for them, raking in decent money from tips.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with doing this, but rather the kind of person that Ziggy is; an immature jerk who will verbally snap on his mom Evelyn (Julianne Moore) for cracking the door open a smidge while he is live streaming. There is some real Eric Cartman playing World of Warcraft energy here.
At first glance, one might presume Evelyn is a far better person, and to be fair, she does contribute to society in a meaningful way by working at a shelter for victims of escaped domestic violence but also gets caught up in self-serving motives. She doesn’t have much of a connection with her son or her husband (Jay O. Sanders), the only sane person in the household, and eventually becomes infatuated with Kyle (Billy Bryk), a boy her son’s age who shows a strong sense of empathy and vulnerability while supporting his mom in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic incident that has brought them to the shelter seeking sanctuary.
From there, she takes a vested interest in getting to know Kyle (she brings him to a restaurant Ziggy once loved tagging along to before becoming lost in his own world) and setting up his future, often pushing past boundaries with a misplaced sense of what the best for him. Meanwhile, Ziggy has puppy dog eyes for politically conscious Lila (Alisha Boe), despite not understanding a word she says when speaking about causes close to her heart. Admirably, this makes Ziggy want to become more politically involved, but he’s also so damn lazy, dimwitted, and sketchy that he would rather find a life cheat code to say the right things to get her interested rather than do the work to become someone she would want to be with romantically genuinely.
There are some laughs derived from watching this doofus stumble at every turn to make a sincere impression or try to understand her stances on the environment and colonialism, which smartly ties into a timely suggestion most of the popular streamers you and I might look up to are socially inept idiots oblivious to the real world around them. That’s what popularity does; it saps those things from some people’s minds.
It also doesn’t feel he could coincidence that Lila is Black, as one could also read into When You Finish Saving the World as a comedic look at the horrendously misguided ways white liberals attempt to be allies to various causes. There’s a scene where Ziggy, out of nowhere, starts ridiculing the classical music his mother listens to as stuffy crap made by a bunch of old white guys, which is funny because it doesn’t feel like an earnest thought, but rather a quick shortcut to appearing progressive-minded.
However, it’s tough to get past the fact that Jesse Eisenberg doesn’t just see these characters as flawed but also ones we should care for and invest in despite those grating, alienating, and irritating faults. After all, part of the story comes from Jesse Eisenberg’s experience pursuing someone’s love in the early 2000s.
When You Finish Saving the World makes the case that Ziggy and Evelyn could probably solve plenty of their problems by taking an interest in each other’s passions (the film abides by the corniest cliché that they are alike, after all), but it’s mostly a signifier that these narcissists should be spending time with each other, after all. It’s not even entirely clear whether they learn anything about themselves, but rather that they fucked up and betrayed people they claim to care about, so what’s left to do besides crawling back to one another?
Again, there is something unquestionably fascinating about these characters (most definitely a testament to the performances across the board) and the film itself, but When You Finish Saving the World should be skipped to save some time. There’s nothing substantially or emotionally rewarding regarding where any of these intriguing ideas go.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at [email protected]
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