Sundance 2022: Simplicity Satisfies in 'When You Finish Saving the World'
Updated: Mar 31, 2022
Jesse Eisenberg’s directorial debut is a mixed bag of poignant moments and cringe-inducing dialogue. With the film's dull color palette and stylistically subdued approach to the family-drama genre, the actor-turned-director doesn’t appear to be trying to appeal to a fresh new fanbase beyond the pre-established cult of A24. Yet, its non-flashiness and low stakes are exactly what make it tolerable; any more melodrama or button-pushing, and we’d have another Men, Women, & Children (2014) on our hands.
When You Finish Saving the World follows the lives of a buttoned-up domestic abuse shelter social worker (Julianne Moore) and her teenage son, a Bob Dylan wannabe down absolutely horrendous (Finn Wolfhard). While the script varies in strength from scene to scene (seriously, Eisenberg, join any online discourse and you’ll find that “lit” hasn’t been in use for several years), Moore and Wolfhard play their respective roles well. Wolfhard’s character is oftentimes insufferable and his purpose may come as a little more than hamfisted every once in a while, but I wouldn’t put his general approach to life past any well-off 15-year old boy.
It is that very privilege that Eisenberg aims to dissect, and even without any game-changing revelations about the advantages these sort of families enjoy in society, it’s still a notable step up in self-awareness from the obviously influential The Squid and the Whale (2004). If Eisenberg fancies himself a Baumbach, it would be accurate to say he’s in his Meyerowitz Stories phase, only with less wisdom. Having a young character not see college as the savior awaiting him from his small-town life is a big step forward in the world of movie-college elitism. Dryly poking fun at Moore’s Evelyn complaining that the college admissions process has “become too complicated,” and that she’ll just make a couple of calls to secure his position at one is just as meaningful.
The whole notion of political involvement and using one’s platform for good is very timely, and I’m appreciative to have the issue addressed in a non-”duh” way. It might make a little more sense if Wolfhard’s character actually made good music; empty lyrics, sure, but simple guitar chords and a mid-pubescent voice do not maketh a star. Perhaps I am just out of touch with the TikTok algorithm, wherein many untalented people seem to flourish, but it was almost insulting to watch the boy say hello to his 20k subscribers who apparently wait anxiously for his weekly live streams. Eisenberg is almost too nice to his teenage character, aptly named "Ziggy," somewhat suspending the reality of online success in order to establish the boy's ego. His big head weighs heavy in all of his conversations; his mother, on the other hand, is equal parts negligent and self-righteous. And they never quite properly address her and her husband’s marital problems, do they?
Regardless, When You Finish Saving the World is structurally solid. It avoids latching onto too many different characters or subplots. It hits a lot of similar beats as The Half of It, a similarly toned Netflix film with just as many gray skies and awkward pubescent banter. Eisenberg doesn’t aspire to solve any world issues, but he takes them seriously. The haughtiness that could pervade a script like this is resolved in the moments when the characters don’t take themselves so seriously; a group of three girls taking a moment to discuss their friend’s planned tongue piercing is the breathing room required to humanize even the most morally upright and socially conscious of individuals.
I do wonder who the film’s intended audience is. Its sporadic f-bombs will likely garner it an R rating, but otherwise, the movie is pretty tame. Wolfhard’s character often comes off like a flagrant exaggeration (an Oliver in Submarine , if you will, only with less quirk), alienating him from a mature teenage audience, and I have my doubts that people will be drawn to such a discordant mother-son dynamic in masses. Nonetheless, it'll satisfy the A24 horde as a debut. In the future, I could see Eisenberg competently handling a genre film. Let's hope that he next channels his acting experience in Richard Ayoade's The Double (2013).