A refigured and condensed version of his own audio drama of the same name, When You Finish Saving the World is a slight directorial debut from Jesse Eisenberg featuring sturdy performances working a script that gets a bit lost. Examining a family whose dysfunction can be best described as a detached aloofness when finding common ground for their individual interests and desires, this drama mostly unfolds by contrasting the isolated lives of mother Evelyn (Julianne Moore) and son Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard). Despite perceptive passages and formal confidence telling the small-scale nature of this story, Eisenberg can’t stick the landing, boxing his characters into a cloying, frustrating, and unconvincing conclusion.
With verbose energy and a confident passion for his DIY music ambitions, Ziggy spends his time crafting “classic folk rock with alternative influences” from his bedroom studio, live-streaming to some 20,000 followers. While it’s the only barometer for his self-worth, his mind begins to expand when he hears his crush Lila (Alisha Boe) pontificate on political crises of the world and the desire for true activism. Meanwhile, Evelyn runs a domestic-violence shelter with a sense of forlorn isolation, clearly invested in her job but not as much in her co-workers. When a struggling mother comes to the shelter with her teenage son Kyle (Billy Bryk), Evelyn begins to form a thorny, taboo bond in caring for him––filling in the gaps she’s not able to achieve when it comes to connecting with her own son.
In capturing tangled family dynamics, one wouldn’t be surprised if Eisenberg looked towards The Squid and the Whale, another one of his Sundance selections (albeit from some two decades ago), for inspiration. While there’s a similar lived-in feel courtesy Benjamin Loeb’s warm 16mm cinematography and a keen sense for awkward, fraught drama––including throwing around profanities at the family table––the script isn’t as polished or piercing as Noah Baumbach’s divorce drama. With depictions of Gen Z’s priority for social and political advocacy (despite a lack of genuine experience in the real world) to the detached older generation’s posturing altruism, Eisenberg uses these ideas more as bumper stickers than creating a meaningful dialogue.
Despite an under-developed script, Wolfhard and Moore both deliver strong performances as their characters continue their parallel tracks, with narcissism blocking the desire to achieve their true goals and neither truly listening to the person they want to make happy. Ziggy flops at his romantic prospects because he fails to see his obsession with fame and wealth is burying any good intentions on the surface, while the self-righteous Evelyn forms a knotty ownership of wanting Kyle to succeed.
There’s a perceptive truth to much of what Eisenberg is getting in regards to detached family relationships—Ziggy and Evelyn convincingly spar when they are actually face-to-face—but as the third act finds their separate lives congealing thematically and literally, the narrative tidiness rings cheap. These are messy lives with years of built-up frustration by the point we enter the story, and to have the culmination play so pat suggests Eisenberg took an easy way out. It’s telling the best, most humorous moment barely involves either of our leads: as the family’s neglected patriarch, Roger (Jay O. Sanders), attempts to discuss an article he’s reading about teen suicide with his son instead of actually connecting with him. He’s a figure that seems like a background actor to a pair of self-obsessed characters, one whose perspective is more grounded and potentially compelling than the two lives we’re watching unfold.
When You Finish Saving the World premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and will be released by A24.