Oscar-nominated actor Jesse Eisenberg makes his directorial debut with When You Finish Saving the World, a lackluster mother-son dramedy that features two excellent lead performances.
Julianne Moore stars as Evelyn, a woman who runs a shelter for domestic abuse survivors. Her son Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard) is an angsty high schooler who spends most of his days on Hi-Hat, a TikTok-like streaming service where Ziggy sings and plays guitar to his 20,000 followers. Evelyn and Ziggy can never see eye to eye. They are either ignoring each other or getting into bickering arguments. They have nothing in common and they try and find connections in other people in their lives. Evelyn looks to Kyle (Billy Bryk), the teen son of a mother who just entered her shelter and Ziggy looks to Lila (Alisha Boe), a socially engaged classmate he has a crush on.
Moore and Wolfhard are the standouts of the film, both giving terrific performances. Moore brings layers to Evelyn, showing us a woman who is warm and kind to a stranger she just met, but cold and uninterested in her own son. Wolfhard gives easily the best performance of his young career as Ziggy. Channeling some of Eisenberg’s infamous awkward energy, Wolfhard offers up a majority of the film’s comedic moments, particularly when he is trying to flirt with or talk to Lila. It’s a shame I wasn’t emotionally connected to either of them one bit and found some of their actions rather insufferable. Eisenberg doesn’t flesh them out enough for us to care about what happens to them or even make us empathize with anything they are doing. The “emotional payoff” at the end, or the attempt at an emotional payoff, doesn’t work because we’ve just watched two self-centered narcissists for an hour and a half who don’t care about anyone else but themselves. So why should we care about them?
Despite the emotional disconnect from Evelyn and Ziggy, I found them somewhat interesting and would have liked these characters in their own separate movies. Having an entire movie about Evelyn as a woman who has no connection to her home life but finds one in a kid at her shelter sounds like a fascinating drama. And on the flip side, a movie about Ziggy being a somewhat famous internet star struggling with the battle of trying to be famous versus trying to be important could have been an interesting look at modern fame and internet culture. There is also an interesting piece about how Ziggy can perform in front of all his internet fans but can barely conjure up a sentence when talking to Lila because he is so nervous. The two stories fail to mesh together, however, and while this is a film about a mother and son failing to connect with each other, it is also a movie that failed to connect with me in any way.
Though there is a distinct style and attitude to Eisenberg’s directorial debut When You Finish Saving the World mostly falls flat. While it does feature two great performances from Moore and Wolfhard, the lack of character depth and overall emotion in the film stops it from emotionally and narratively engaging.
When You Finish Saving the World premiered in the PREMIERES section of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
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