Sundance Review: When You Finish Saving the World
Rewatching The Social Network recently, I found myself marveling once again at the truly impressive performance Jesse Eisenberg gives as Facebook (sorry, Meta) founder Mark Zuckerberg — so much so that Eisenberg could have been forgiven for coasting off his Oscar nomination and churning out watered-down and tic-filled imitations for years afterwards. While there may be a couple of those in his filmography, the actor has clearly made an effort to push himself as a performer — including by working with filmmakers like Kelly Reichardt and Joachim Trier — and as a creative force in other artistic endeavors. His non-cinematic work, notably as a short storyist and playwright, intrigues, and the voice he’s honed in those fields has clearly influenced his first foray behind the camera as a screenwriter and director. Unfortunately, however, the differences in medium are too vast to overcome in this initial attempt, and When You Finish Saving the World falls flat.
Adapted from Eisenberg’s 2020 audio play of the same name, the film follows a mother-son relationship that initially feels borderline irreparable. Julianne Moore plays Evelyn Katz, a former liberal disrupter currently running a shelter for victims of domestic violence. She’s clearly disappointed in the lack of connection she has with her son Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard), a high schooler who spends the majority of his time writing and performing original songs for a fairly sizable internet community. When they’re at home they tend to spend the majority of their time either ignoring each other or screaming profanities — dysfunctional is an understatement, contributing to both Ziggy and Evelyn reaching crisis points of their own making.
Theoretically, a film of this nature should rest on the backs of the actors to provide realized characters and some sort of emotional honesty, but Eisenberg’s script proves to be a hindrance rather than a help. Though Moore — the type of veteran actor who can usually make something out of nothing — fares well enough, Wolfhard feels swallowed up by Ziggy’s irritating tics. Mildly interesting characterizations in the early goings quickly succumb to cringe-inducing and eye-rolling caricatures, and the dialogue is mostly comprised of the sort of quick, repetitive pitter-patter that often works on the stage but not on film — in perhaps the largest misstep, Eisenberg also invents (unless I’m completely out of the loop) a couple pieces of teen slang that he then proceeds to overuse in grating and distracting fashion.
Now, I will admit, I’m fairly allergic to the particular brand of mannered indie stylization that’s on display here, and others may be more open to Eisenberg’s quirkiness. As it was, my irritation with the style only exacerbated the narrative pitfalls: as we head towards a fairly obvious conclusion, it becomes clear that the bifurcated stories don’t have equal heft, which winds up undercutting the already trite ending. There’s some real substance to Evelyn’s arc that’s simply missing from Ziggy’s, highlighted even more by the contrast in experience and onscreen personas of Moore and Wolfhard. As a first-time director, Eisenberg does at least show an impressive confidence in his own idiosyncrasy, and I expect we’ll see more palatable work from him in the future, but this initial effort is simply too frustrating to recommend.