‘When You Finish Saving the World’ Movie Review [Sundance 2022]: Jesse Eisenberg’s Directorial Debut Falls Short

When You Finish Saving the World has an endearing mother/son story at its core. Jesse Eisenberg makes his feature debut as a writer and director, which has a clear tone. Julianne Moore and Finn Wolfhard deliver powerhouse performances, but the story falls short. When You Finish Saving the World delights itself a little too much in awkwardness.

‘When You Finish Saving the World’ introduces a mother/son story

'When You Finish Saving the World' Finn Wolfhard as Ziggy and Julianne Moore as Evelyn looking at each other
L-R: Finn Wolfhard as Ziggy and Julianne Moore as Evelyn | Courtesy of Sundance Institute/Beth Garrabrant

Evelyn (Moore) owns a domestic abuse shelter to help those in need. However, her home life is a struggle. Evelyn has a cold and distant relationship with her aspiring musician son, Ziggy (Wolfhard). She seeks a replacement son of sorts in Kyle (Billy Bryk), who is a resident at her shelter.

Meanwhile, Ziggy weighs his importance in the world with his music career on a live-streaming platform. He seeks attention and approval from an intellectual at his high school named Lila (Alisha Boe). Ziggy and Evelyn fumble to develop real connections in the world both within and outside of their family.

Jesse Eisenberg explores Internet fame and making an impact

When You Finish Saving the World is a mother/son story at its core, but they can’t figure out how to relate with each other. Ziggy and Evelyn are both desperate for approval and appreciation. After years of drifting apart, they seek that validation elsewhere. Even in the shelter, Evelyn witnesses more stable relationships between mothers and sons, although she can’t quite seem to achieve that herself.

Evelyn tries to relate with Ziggy but constantly fails to do so. Eisenberg’s screenplay depicts a mother who means well, although the words never come out as she means them. Ziggy doesn’t fare much better, as he also gets it wrong with Lila. However, neither of them is fooling anyone in their pursuit of a replacement for family.

Eisenberg’s When You Finish Saving the World explores generational shifts. Ziggy’s peers are politically active, while he tries to make it big on the Internet. His parents don’t truly understand his passions and most of his peers reject them. When You Finish Saving the World is a film entirely about the yearning to connect.

‘When You Finish Saving the World’ is frequently grating and inaccessible

Eisenberg boasts an impressive cast with Wolfhard and Moore leading the charge. Wolfhard is undeniably believable and vulnerable as a teenager working toward his passion. Moore is a true powerhouse, who digs into Evelyn’s deepest character nuances and elevates them at every turn. Unfortunately, Eisenberg writes Evelyn’s narcissism and elitism as if she’s never worked a single day of her life in her line of work.

When You Finish Saving the World is often cringe-inducing and grating. Much of this tone is intentional, although it’s so overbearing that it’s difficult to relate to it. Evelyn and Ziggy are superficial, but much of that comes from the desperation for a connection. Unfortunately, that distance and coldness extend to their relationship with the audience.

There’s a heartwarming, endearing story buried in When You Finish Saving the World. Eisenberg has something to say, but it’s not entirely clear that he knows how to best communicate it. It will be intriguing to see how he continues to evolve as a filmmaker, although his debut, unfortunately, falls short.

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