It’s pretty much generally accepted that you’re supposed to love your children. Right? But what happens when, for whatever reason, parent and child just seem to rub each other the wrong way on a fundamental level? In Jesse Eisenberg’s directorial debut, When You Finish Saving the World, he explores a contentious relationship between a mother and son, both of whom seek in other people the emotional bond they are lacking in their own home. Although it betrays Eisenberg’s inexperience as a director, making it unfocused and occasionally meandering, When You Finish Saving the World features reliably strong performances from Julianne Moore and Finn Wolfhard. The film attempts to provide a definitive look at the often dysfunctional dynamic between Zoomers and their parents. It does not fail in this mission entirely, even if it is a little muddled.
Ziggy (Wolfhard) and his mother, Evelyn (Moore), are diametrically opposed to one another while at the same time being incredibly similar in temperament. (So much so that while they butt heads, they often completely ignore the existence of the even-keeled family patriarch, Roger (Jay O. Sanders), which occasionally creates a dynamic reminiscent of Ordinary People.) Ziggy is a musician with a modest presence on HiHat (the fictional facsimile of TikTok) who is entirely focused on growing his viewership and making money off his fans. Evelyn is a dedicated public servant, running a shelter for survivors of domestic abuse, whose youthful activist energy has long since evolved into a well-intentioned but somewhat condescending savior complex. In their own unique ways, they are equal parts endearing and insufferable. And when they interact with one another, it’s as though they don’t even speak the same language.
Ziggy is caught up in his own little world for the most part. But when he becomes fascinated by a politically conscious classmate, he’s desperate to seem like he has depth. She becomes an unwitting mentor in his tentative steps towards what he perceives as activism, their friendship a subconscious effort by Ziggy to connect with his mother. Meanwhile, Evelyn throws herself into helping out a woman and her teenage son Kyle (Billy Bryk), who have just come to the shelter. Kyle is kind and empathetic, appreciative of his things, in contrast to her own entitled son. She pours all of her maternal energy into creating academic opportunities for him, even though he already has a mother with his best interests at heart, and the future she envisions for him may not be what he actually wants.
Together, Ziggy and his mother are frequently insufferable and clueless to the feelings of others. If they could only communicate with one another, they might connect over that alone. But for that to happen, they have to bridge a seemingly insurmountable gap that lies between them. As much as When You Finish Saving the World is focused on these two specific characters, it’s also a metaphor for the conflict between different generations and how their definitions of what it means to be socially engaged are frequently at odds with one another.
It’s an interesting concept, and you can definitely hear Jesse Eisenberg’s authorial voice as writer and director. The performances from both Wolfhard and Moore are pretty much beyond reproach. But still, there’s something about the production as a whole that feels unpolished. Eisenberg’s instincts are good, but the relationship between Ziggy and Evelyn lacks the depth and nuance to make this thing really work. They have a lot of screamy, repetitive arguments without many levels to their interactions until the very end. It feels as though Eisenberg is drawing on classic family dramas for inspiration without tapping into what made those films great. There’s very little that is satisfying about either character’s arc, and definitely not enough to make up for the amount of time both have spent being completely and utterly horrible to one another.
When You Finish Saving the World has a lot of good ideas. It’s at its best when it’s examining the ways that Zoomers, perpetually plugged in as they are, interact with a larger world and how the intersection between activism and monetization is increasingly muddled. There’s plenty to like with the two lead performances, but it just somehow feels like it’s missing the connective tissue to make the relationship between Ziggy and Evelyn hit as hard as it should. Still, it’s a decent first effort from Eisenberg, even if it veers slightly into awkwardness and repetition.