Like some of the strongest directorial debuts from actors-turned-directors, When You Finish Saving the World feels born from the rib of its creator. And what makes that more intriguingly pleasurable than others is the fact that such a filmmaker is Jesse Eisenberg, an often extraordinary actor who continually has brought a lingering awkwardness and countless hidden depths to his various on-screen roles. And he undoubtedly extends that behind the camera now as well, with this caustic and thorny mother-son drama that’s adapted from his own audio drama of the same title. The central familial bond here is between teenage musician Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard) and his social worker mother Evelyn (Julianne Moore), as we witness them both reflect and refract one another on each of their journeys of self-absorption. Neither of them are exactly monsters, but they each have their moments.
For Ziggy, his life is (partially) focused on a car crash of a crush on Lila (Alisha Boe), but it’s not exactly the most fluttering of dynamics — it’s more just him so desperately trying to love her on pretty solitary terms. Ziggy is definitely a narcissistic product of the social media age, as he goes about his day wearing practically only his own merch and being as sweet as he can be for his 20,000 tweens who subscribe to his online music channel. His high-strung mom, on the other hand, would probably read as “a good person,” by any liberal definition of the phrase, on the outset. — in reality though, not exactly. Rivetingly embodied by Julianne Moore, Evelyn presents herself as the kind of upper-middle-class white woman who’s part of the solution. She donates to NPR, she has a blue yard sign on her lawn, and whatever skeletons she might have in her closet are probably hidden behind plenty of women’s-lib hats and t-shirts (broad as this characterization might sound, Eisenberg’s lean script balances peeling her back quite well). Evelyn is perhaps most defined by her job running a shelter for victims of domestic violence, but few people who do such life-saving work are able to radiate such an intense sense of unfulfillment at the same time. Evelyn’s heart may be in the right place, but there’s a gaping hole in it that life as a mom hasn’t filled.
Things have never been the same for her since Ziggy hit puberty and started writing his own tunes with the guitar that she intended for protest songs. Whatever harmony once existed in the their home has been replaced by an intergenerational clash, as Ziggy and Evelyn would rather crank up the volume of their favorite music than listen to what the other enjoys. Meanwhile, the man of the house (Jay O. Sanders) just stays to himself and prays for some quiet that won’t be coming anytime soon, especially once Evelyn starts fixating on a bright teenage boy who moves into the shelter with his mom. Kyle (Billy Bryk) can’t understand why this strange woman is so invested in treating him like her own son, but Evelyn is locked-in on finding someone to accept the love she has to give.
And When You Finish Saving the World as a whole never pretends that any of this is going to end well, as Evelyn’s overbearing interest in Kyle is even more obviously doomed than Ziggy’s obsession with Lila. But as enjoyable as the cringe humor of it all may be, it seems clear that all the wince-inducing moments are ultimately in service of something larger — to reframe the way that Ziggy and Evelyn think of/look at each other. The movie might radiate the energy of a coming-of-age film, but in reality what we actually get is less about growing up than it is about holding on — it’s the story of Ziggy and Evelyn learning to make space for themselves in their relationships with other people, and to make space for other people in their relationships with themselves.
And while it can get a little too cutesy or even cartoonish with its depictions of parts of that process, Eisenberg still strikes notes of affection around them, as he blends some of the sweetness of Greta Gerwig’s work with the squirmy, acidic wit of Noah Baumbach’s. But, it should be said, Eisenberg still puts his own stamp on the material, just like he’s done as an actor. There isn’t actually a single line in When You Finish Saving the World that you can’t hear coming out of his mouth — his presence behind the camera is so palpable that it would have been redundant for Eisenberg to cast himself in some way. Instead, you get his tough honesty and jittering neuroses radiating through and around the material, and it’s because of such attributes that so much of his film rings true. Caustic and darkly funny, When You Finish Saving the World sees Jesse Eisenberg astutely display the intertwining of narcissism and altruism; unveiling himself as an intriguing new voice behind the camera.
When You Finish Saving the World premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. A24 will release is sometime this year.