In life we tend to conflate passion with importance. Regardless of whether one is an artist, a blogger, an activist, a nurse, a business owner, etc., there are times when we all get lost in the maze of our own self-importance. This is where the central mother and son duo of When You Finish Saving the World, the debut film from actor-turned-director Jesse Eisenberg, find themselves.
Evelyn (Julianne Moore) and her teenage son Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard) may live in the same house, but mentally they are worlds apart. She runs a shelter for women and their families who are fleeing domestic abuse. Listening to classical music in her Smart Car on the way to work, she moves through life with an air of superiority. In her mind, her work is changing lives for the better unlike Ziggy who seems content to make vapid songs online. Of course, Ziggy does not see his craft in the same light.
Amassing twenty thousand followers on the on his favourite social media app, Ziggy sees himself as a musician on the cusp of greatness. Routinely streaming his songs online, and with a teenage fanbase that stretches to the poorest regions of the globe, Ziggy believes he is providing a necessary escape from the hardships of the world. Not that Ziggy has any concept of the trials and tribulations that others endure mind you. A fact that becomes painful clear when he tries to interact with Lila (Alisha Boe), the politically engaged girl he has a crush on at school. While he may show up at the same open mic events for activists that Lila attends, Ziggy has no intention of doing any meaningful work to educate himself.
He simply wants the Twitter headline version of social events. One gets the feeling Ziggy is the type of individual who would performatively post an orange or black square on social media without understanding what the colours represent.
While Evelyn expresses disappointment in the fact that the child she took to many rallies as toddler has not developed into the socially conscious young adult she hoped for, she too is blind to the role she played in this as well. Despite all her success, Evelyn’s dedication to the job has resulted in the loss of her ability to connect with anyone on a meaningful level. Conducting small talk with a staff member is an exercise in extreme awkwardness.
What makes Eisenberg’s social satire so engaging is the way his characters cringingly move about their days oblivious to their own narcissistic tendencies. Rather than take the time to truly reflect on why their relationship has become strained, both Ziggy and Evelyn seek to quickly fill the void through other people. For Ziggy it is co-opting Lila’s political beliefs, and for Evelyn it is developing a “son crush” on Kyle (Billy Bryk), whose mother Angie (Elenore Hendricks) has just moved into the shelter.
Eisenberg’s script, adapted from his Audible Original of the same name, takes a lot of dark glee in showing how Evelyn and Ziggy are not so much interested in saving the world, but rather reshaping it in their own image. Ziggy is unable to shake the capitalism that has raised him. He cannot hold a conversation with mentioning his number of follower or see anything beyond how he can make more money leveraging Lila’s political voice. He represents a generation of faux activists who only see allyship through a transactional filter, one where they reap the benefits from doing the least amount of work. While his foibles are on display for all to see, Evelyn’s are just below the surface and are far more damaging.
Kyle’s life is one of hardship and perseverance, but it is only the former that Evelyn choses to see. She is so determined to provide Kyle a life raft that she fails to see he can swim perfectly fine on his own.
This blindness to the actual world around them is prevalent throughout When You Finish Saving the World. In one amusing moment, Evelyn’s husband (Jay O. Sanders) warns Ziggy about playing blues music for fear of being labelled a cultural appropriator. It is off-hand moments like this that remind audiences just how out of touch the entire family is. They are trapped within a bubble of privilege that distorts their views of themselves and others.
Evelyn and Ziggy’s narcissism may alter how they approach the world, but it is the strong performances by Moore and Wolfhard that make Eisenberg’s debut so engaging. Moore and Wolfhard skillfully ensure that one is constantly invested in these two unlikable characters. Despite Evelyn and Ziggy’s own delusions of grandeur, their inability to connect always feels authentic.
Although the script tends to overstate the obvious at times, When You Finish Saving the World is a confident and delightfully cringe-filled debut that will leave one excited to see what Eisenberg makes next.
When You Finish Saving the World screens as part of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
Watch Editor-in-Chief Jason Gorber’s video review here