For me wondering why Jesse Eisenberg hasn’t been in many movies recently has proved my point here. From being in past Sundance favorites, like, The Squid and the Whale, to his Oscar-nominated performance in the critical masterpiece The Social Network. Now, following the footsteps of recognizable actors taking his skills behind the camera and presenting it at Sundance, we finally get to see what he can do when he explores the relationship between a mother and son with his feature directorial debut When You Finish Saving the World, produced by A24 and is based on his Audible story of the same name from 2020.
What’s the Story: Ziggy Katz (Finn Wolfhard) is a high schooler who dedicates his days performing original, albeit lame folk songs through his streaming platform on HiHat, which he will mention has 20,000 followers who send him money to sing. On the other hand, his mother, Evelyn (Julianne Moore), runs Spruce Haven, a shelter provided for those who’ve been victims of domestic abuse. The two of them go through the typical relationship a teenager has with a parent, where you can sense a strong disconnect between both of them is what drives their careers forward. But while Ziggy attempts to make his songs more political to impress his classmate Lila (Alisha Boe), Evelyn forms a bond with Kyle (Billy Bryk), who comes with his mother to the shelter and decides to take him under his wing to make his life better.
Since you have Eisenberg taking control of a story from his mind, it is easy for him to present it as a film different from the audiobook. Not that I have a child or anything, but I know it isn’t complicated to understand this is realistic to how children and adults behave. Before watching this, I didn’t know what to expect, but I had some trust in hoping he would give us something special to think about once it ended. Yet, it could’ve been so much better that it’s missing a component or two to keep things interesting. Seeing how I’ve always figured he’s more comfortable around the indie landscape rather than big blockbusters, in its Bloomington, Indiana setting around a family with different values forced to get along. You got your two main leads in Finn Wolfhard (who reprises his role from the audiobook) and Julianne Moore as Ziggy and Evelyn, respectively. As a fan of both of them, their performances were what I came to expect from both of them. They were believable as these two individuals are growing apart but thrive in their own element, whether it comes across as odd or not.
But if you’re searching for similar A24 movies in the same vein as C’Mon, C’mon or maybe Lady Bird, then it could work for you or won’t. When You Finish Saving the World doesn’t really have a moment that had me recalling being emotionally resonant enough to care what these characters are going through, although I believe there’s a large amount of empathy with them that could’ve been explored more with a longer runtime. That must’ve been Eisenberg’s attempt to make them like that and I hoped the relationship between the two would make some kind of impact, and while this allows us to respect our loved ones, not a lot of them is spent with the two of them. Because of that, the story doesn’t go anywhere entirely enjoyable. They have a conversation on the way to school of letting Ziggy know he must try hard to be involved in a specific topic, but you still sense it’s not entirely a loving mother-son bonding.
In a way from what I experienced watching, Ziggy and Evelyn do what they can to help those around them, like, Evelyn basically becoming another mother to Kyle by helping her out and pushing him to an excellent career path. With Ziggy, he provides content for those in other countries when he feels they need a break from all the troubles that pretty much makes him shallow once he takes an interest in wanting to help the world. It’s one of those films made for narcissists. Not everything hits the notes, but improvements can be found along the way. On a positive note, it’s a nice-looking film, and I love the score from Emile Mosseri, one of my current favorite composers. But once it reaches its climax and hopes to pack a punch, I wanted so much more. Personally, I found this to be a debut film that isn’t bad but underwhelming.
Maybe I’m in the minority with this. Still, with When You Finish Saving the World, Jesse Eisenberg’s directorial debut of a parent & child from different generations lacked the emotional connection to make it memorable. Thankfully, Finn Wolfhard and Julianne Moore’s performances were delivered perfectly despite their unlikable characters. Sadly, this drama couldn’t keep me engaged throughout its runtime, but this has me curious to see what Eisenberg does next as a director. Once it gets a release date, you can see for yourself.