In the generation of influencers and TikTok stars, political awareness appears to be at an all-time low. Not every being needs to be political so to speak, but a certain respect for the civic process seems to have gone by the way side. Actor Jesse Eisenberg’s directorial debut argues that isn’t the case. It’s a sentiment that this writer agrees with. When You Finish Saving the World examines those two dueling forces in a modern context as well the narcissistic personalties of its leads. Though the Audible original audiobook the movie is based on—also written by Eisenberg—takes place in the future, the movie contextualizes these themes in the modern day. Through the lens of a teenage YouTube star and his manic mother, Eisenberg’s messy but poignant directorial debut examines modernity in a way that feels of this moment. Unfortunately, it’s the films inability to string its narrative together in consistently cohesive manner that keeps from truly standing out.
Finn Wolfhard (Stranger Things) donning a shaggy haircut and guitar, performs indie folk adjacent tunes to a crowd of faces in his computer monitor. His name is Ziggy Katz, and he’s the kind of kid who dons his own merchandise, constantly brags about his 20,000 followers and treats his parents the way many generations would’ve gotten swift corporal punishment for. His mother Evelyn, a wonderful Julianne Moore, runs a domestic abuse shelter and treats Ziggy in a largely indifferent and chilly manner. These two characters, unlikable as they may be, actually seems to reflect something authentic within the modern world. Unlikeable characters can make or break a film. If you swing too far in one direction, it’s hard to connect to them. Eisenberg finds the right balance here.
This is due in part to the secondary relationships each of these characters explores. In some way, they’re finding surrogates for each other. For Ziggy, it is in the form of a fellow female classmate, Lila. Lila is astute politically but that’s not her entire personality. So, when Ziggy finds her and her friends discussing geopolitical topics at lunch one day, he embarrasses himself. Only able to talk about the mass amount of followers he has all over the world, she rightfully points out he might be exploiting his fans. This is particularly true In the demographics of his live-streaming fans. Ziggy is quick to point out to a fan that the countries floods must not be effecting their WiFi and thanks her for her donation. In Lila, Ziggy finds a certain respect that he does not feel for his mother.
Evelyn on the other hand, discovers the son of a woman seeking shelter following domestic abuse named Kyle. He is everything she wants her son to be. He helps around the shelter with projects, has a mild manner to him. Because Kyle is everything her son isn’t, she takes a vested interest in his future. It’s something she doesn’t do with Ziggy. Even when her own son comes to her for advice she is aloof and unapproachable. She takes the time to find Kyle a college, make sure he is fed and even open him up to experiences removed from his own. She never once thinks about what others want or need. Unless of course it serves her own interests and sense of self that is ultimately twisted.
Eisenberg as a result isn’t just exploring that dueling force of apolitical teenagers versus political ones. Or even commenting on whether TikTok stars and influencers are moral beings. All of that it is there as a way to explore narcissism. I haven’t seen a film in quite some time with characters as unlikeable as these. Evelyn’s vision for Ziggy’s life, and the failure to execute said vision, is really the movies most intriguing storyline. As Ziggy grew up he attended his mothers protest gatherings less and less. She mocks Ziggy’s music, describing it as essentially pop boy loves girl music. While his desire to be famous intersects with his eagerness to show Lila he can talk and sing about important, Evelyn lampooning what he does only comes from a place of self-interest. “You’re life was going to be happier because you were part of struggle” she tells him. In one fell swoop, Evelyn drives home to Ziggy their greatest divide. It’s wonderful writing and character development. It’s bolstered by the two wonderful central performances by Wolfhard and Moore.
It does feel like the film lacks a cohesive way to bring both the progressive guilt commentary and the personalities of its perpetrators together. It feels like a film that might upon a rewatch feel differently. Though I thought it was well written and wonderfully acted, the films final act felt a little cold and a little unsatisfying. But still, Eiesenberg’s work here bodes promise of his ability to tell stories as a filmmaker. We knew already that he was one of our most interesting and talented actors working today. With When You Finish Saving the World, Eisenberg announces himself as another actor turned director with a promising career ahead behind the camera.
Note: This film premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and will be released in the U.S. by A24. No release date has been announced.