Jesse Eisenberg: When You Finish Saving the World (2022) | Sundance 2022
Finn Wolfhard and Julianne Moore in When You Finish Saving the World (2022) | Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Beth Garrabrant

Sundance 2022: ‘When You Finish Saving the World’ a Powerful Directorial Debut

Jesse Eisenberg’s debut comedy-drama, When You Finish Saving the World delivers cringes and finds trembling humanity within its narcissistic characters.

When You Finish Saving the World
Jesse Eisenberg
20 January 2022 (Sundance)

Sometimes, the only cool thing about family is their genetic imperative to tolerate your bullshit. But how do we overcome the years of shattered expectations and tacit disapproval? Jesse Eisenberg’s directorial debut, When You Finish Saving the World, is a deliciously awkward dramedy about strained familial bonds and the collateral damage they leave in their wake.

An observant script (also by Eisenberg) delivers not only cringes but also finds the trembling humanity within these narcissistic characters. It’s an uncomfortable watch that still leaves you hopeful, albeit in the vaguest, most non-committal way.

Eisenberg understands your sympathies will shift depending upon your age and station in life. Younger filmgoers will identify with Finn Wolfhard’s mercurial teenager Ziggy, while the more seasoned viewer will commiserate with his exasperated mother, Evelyn (the impeccable Julianne Moore). The narrative lines are sharply drawn but Eisenberg never judges his characters. There are no traumatic flashbacks or emotional epiphanies that plague most family dramas. Things simply simmer between Ziggy and Evelyn; their repressed frustrations further widen the ideological and emotional gap between them.   

As a screenwriter, Eisenberg focuses on rich characterizations above relatability. Ziggy pens puerile songs for his Hi-Hat vlog; a sort of fictionalized TikTok where his 20,000 followers (a statistic he repeatedly quotes with no prompting whatsoever) drool over his infantile musings. Evelyn runs a shelter for domestic violence survivors, barely containing her angst with the help of a bathtub-sized wine glass. They speak to one another as if conducting a business transaction. When Ziggy says he will be ready to leave for school in five seconds, Evelyn times him for five seconds on her watch and then drives away without him.

Since Ziggy and Evelyn can’t get what they need from each other, they do the next best thing; find innocent surrogates upon which to project their insecurities. Ziggy obsesses over an idealistic High School student named Lila (Alisha Boe) who wants to save the world. Evelyn makes it a personal project to shape the sturdy teenage son of an abuse survivor (Billy Bryk as ‘Kyle’) into a college-bound Social Justice Warrior. That Ziggy and Evelyn glom onto facsimiles of one another is beyond ironic. It’s also painfully human and lends When You Finish Saving the World a genuine sense of urgency despite the lack of histrionics.

Of course, Eisenberg’s debut isn’t without flaws. There is some repetition, particularly in the scenes involving Ziggy and Evelyn with their emotional surrogates. The score is a bit overbearing, perhaps compensating for the sparse dialogue. The ending, too, is abrupt and somewhat convenient, particularly in comparison to the meticulous buildup.

Still, When You Finish Saving the World is an assured debut from Eisenberg. Perhaps the most impressive example of his deft filmmaking is how he handles Ziggy’s songwriting. The first song we hear from Ziggy is called “Truth Aches”, a juvenile warbler with platitudes about “high-speed trains on parallel tracks.” When Eisenberg revisits this song in the film’s finalé, however, we now appreciate its profound sentiment. We’ve gained an understanding of Ziggy’s song by sidestepping our initial judgment. If only we could afford our family the same luxury.

RATING 7 / 10