Director & Writer: Jesse Eisenberg
Starring: Julianne Moore, Finn Wolfhard, and Alisha Boe
Cinematographer: Benjamin Loeb
Sundance Synopsis: From his bedroom home studio, high school student Ziggy performs original folk-rock songs for an adoring online fan base. This concept mystifies his formal and uptight mother, Evelyn, who runs a shelter for survivors of domestic abuse. While Ziggy is busy trying to impress his socially engaged classmate Lila by making his music less bubblegum and more political, Evelyn meets Angie and her teen son, Kyle, when they seek refuge at her facility. She observes a bond between the two that she’s missing with her own son, and decides to take Kyle under her wing against her better instincts.
Jesse Eisenberg’s directorial debut is a fine work of art that not only gives us insight into his inner conflict with his work in Hollywood, but it reflects Hollywood’s trend in delving into social activism on a surface level. Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard), who’s only interest in politics and activism stems from a school crush, reflects this perfectly. Evelyn (Julianne Moore), on the other hand, is his mother who actually does the work to give back to people in need. She can’t understand why anyone would waste time pretending to care about issues without putting in the work.
As the story progresses, it becomes painfully obvious that Evelyn and Ziggy just can’t and won’t see eye-to-eye on things, and moments like these are when Eisenberg’s script and direction shines. The dialogue is crowded with awkwardness, tension, and struggles of connection that come out incredibly frustrating but perfectly placed and intentional in delivery. Julianne Moore and Finn Wolfhard have no trouble conveying these struggles of communication, bringing to life this unwavering mother-son tit for tat that never drags on or overstays its welcome behind Jesse’s lense.
Part of what’s so fascinating about his directorial debut is Eisenberg’s ability to criticize the act of needing to rush on the bandwagon of social activism. What’s especially captivating about his script is his admittance of these struggles when in reality this is a direct reflection of what’s wrong with a lot of society, including Hollywood, these days. How often do people quickly rush to judgement on an issue they see online without the supporting facts? We’ve all been witnesses to certain actors or actresses using their voices on the behalf of others to address cultural or social issues that they know nothing about. Via Eisenberg’s script, it’s all for show and comes off as surface-level caring with a hint of exploitation, and it is what will make this film uncomfortable for most but incredibly smart for some.
Although When You Finish Saving the World hits the nail on the head when it comes to the clashing of two generations and not being able and willing to understand each others values, it missed the mark on being able to connect emotionally for me. At times, it’s simply a little too smart for its own good. But in the end, it’s exactly the kind of film you’d expect from Jesse Eisenberg: a little bit of charm, a superfluous amount of awkward and intense frustration, yet the perfect amount of quietly loud moments that feel erratic yet sweet.