Evelyn Katz (Julianne Moore) is, by textbook definition, a good person; she’s devoted her life to running a shelter for victims of domestic abuse. Her teenage son Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard) might on the surface be considered the exact opposite. He’s a musician penning tunes he refers to as “classic folk rock with an alternative influence” which he performs on livestreams for thousands of people around the world from the comfort of his bedroom. But the earnest persona he dons on camera doesn’t carry over to his interactions with his parents; in the first scene of Jesse Eisenberg’s directorial debut (which he penned from his semi-autobiographical 2020 audio drama of the same name) “When You Finish Saving the World” that Ziggy shares with Evelyn, he’s barging into the bathroom while she’s taking a shower to demand why she tried to open his door while he was streaming, and to just as forcefully tell her never to do so again.
But while Ziggy, with his hipster attire, guitar perpetually slung on his back, and sense of self-absorption and Evelyn, whose look screams white liberal academic and who constantly needs to make everything just right, appear to be polar opposites, they spend the film fumbling their way down parallel roads, searching for what they are failing to find in each other with other people and missing every opportunity to connect along the way. When Evelyn takes in a mother and her teenage son Kyle (Billy Bryk), she sees in him what she yearns for in Ziggy (they are the same age). When she suggests that Ziggy come to the shelter to help out with some general maintenance, he scoffs. When she asks Kyle, he politely complies, but she oversteps when she begins pulling him to spend more and more time with her, taking him to dinner and the Ethiopian restaurant she used to frequent with Ziggy, trying to figure out a way to get him into a good college and not on the path of working in his father’s auto shop after he finishes school. Ziggy, meanwhile, becomes obsessed with a political active girl at his school, Lila (Alisha Boe), but when he tries to meet her on her terms, he’s way out of his depth. The first words that tumble out of his mouth as soon as he inserts himself into an earnest debate Lila is having with her friends, only to have one of her friends ask him to explain why he is agreeing with her? “Oh shit.”
Ziggy is incapable of absorbing Lila’s comment to him that he doesn’t have to like politics, and instead blindly attempts to get involved in her various causes without bothering to think about them beyond what may impress her or get his music to reach a wider audience. Equally so, Evelyn can’t consider a path for Kyle outside of the one she has selected for him in her mind. One of the most impressive aspects of “When You Finish Saving the World” is the astute grasp Eisenberg possesses on the ways that adults can behave just as childishly as kids. Not only is Evelyn yearning so deeply for a connection with a son that she makes an excuse to drive back to the office just to bring Kyle a plate of leftovers that Ziggy chose not to eat, but for all the “good” she does at her job, her semi-manic demeanor holds her at arms length from her coworkers, from an awkward conversation she has with a receptionist while she’s waiting for the elevator that ends in the woman thinking she wants to fire her, to her intrusion on a birthday party that she exits saying, “congratulations on your birthday.” It’s no wonder that Eisenberg, a talented actor himself, drew up such fascinating characters and exceptionally cast them. Wolfhard is appropriately ditzy, but Moore’s jittery performance is one of her most riveting in recent years.
The characters and plot of “When You Finish Saving the World” feel a little too carefully calibrated where they could have been more tumultuous, the family dynamics messier; holding together the constantly failing to connect mother and son is husband/father Roger (Jay O. Sanders), whose steady, quiet presence exudes frustration at their antics but also a disinterest in getting further involved. And the ending, while it’s obvious that these relationships Evelyn and Ziggy are pursuing on the side are never going to amount to anything substantial, comes about rather abruptly. But it’s the little details that Eisenberg places in the film, showing where Evelyn and Ziggy could come together on some level playing field if they’d only take a moment to try and see past their own noses that resonate the most. Maybe Ziggy isn’t using that guitar he carries around to play protest songs like his mother would like to see, but he is making music he enjoys. And that Ethiopian restaurant that Evelyn said he didn’t like going to anymore because it got his hands dirty? Yeah, his hands got dirty, but he still enjoyed it. The film’s oddball sense of humor and unlikable characters have prompted many to liken Eisenberg’s feature to the likes of Noah Baumbach, but to me it’s obvious and impressive that Eisenberg has a clear voice and vision all his own. And just because Evelyn and Ziggy aren’t the embodiment of charm doesn’t mean their flaws aren’t relatable, their humanity present and deeply felt. I mean, was anyone really expecting Jesse Eisenberg to make a movie about people we’d actually want to be around?
“When You Finish Saving the World” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 88 minutes. Rated R.