A film review by Craig J. Koban March 8, 2023


2023, R, 88 mins.

Julianne Moore as Evelyn  /  Finn Wolfhard as Ziggy  /  Billy Bryk as Kyle  /  Alisha Boe as Lila  /  Jack Justice as Jackie  /  Jay O. Sanders as Roger  /  Eléonore Hendricks as Angie

Written and directed by Jesse Eisenberg



Very few of the characters that populate writer/director Jesse Eisenberg's coming of age dramedy WHEN YOU FINISH SAVING THE WORLD come off like real people.  His directorial debut seems filled with weirdly idiosyncratic personalities that - in their own unique way - are so off-putting and creepy in their behavior that I spent a majority of the film's very short running time trying to figure out who these people were, what their purpose was in the story, and ultimately what Eisenberg was trying to say about them in the process.  

At its core, WHEN YOU FINISH SAVING THE WORLD basically navigates the tenuous relationship between a mother and her teenage son, but both are so strange and dislikeable that grasping onto to either of them throughout the narrative proved to be a Herculean challenge.  That's not to say that good films about bad people can't be made, but Eisenberg - a routinely fine and proven actor over the years who has played his fair share of polarizing roles - can't seem to find a grove behind the camera to make his rookie effort one to get lost in.  When it boils right down to it, his characters - beyond their cringe factor oddity - simply aren't interesting. 

The mother in this fractured family relationship is Evelyn (Julianne Moore), who beyond being almost obnoxiously uptight about everything in the comings and goings of her household is also the head runner of a local shelter that helps survivors of domestic abuse.  She's had a mostly happy marriage with her husband (Ray O. Sanders), and both were once Liberal-minded hippies that fought the good fight against oppressive forces back in the day, but their adolescent son Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard) seems constantly distant and aloof.  He's an up-and-coming folk singer that spends what appears to be an unhealthy majority of his time playing tunes to audiences via social media streams (one of his most exasperating qualities is telling just about anyone he comes in contact with - no matter how close or strange they are to him - that he has over 20,000 followers on his platform).  He also gets obsessively hostile towards his mother and father when they don't knock on his bedroom door before coming in during one of his streams.  It's safe to say that within the first few minutes of meeting this selfish piece of work that I wanted to slap some respect into him. 

Completely jaded by what he perceives is a lack of respect for his boundaries, Ziggy installs a rotating warning light above his bedroom door to visually remind his parents not to come in while streaming (what a piece of work this guy is!).  Evelyn senses that her relationship with her boy is getting colder by the day, so in an attempt to thaw things out, she politely asks him if he'd be willing to help her as a volunteer at the shelter, but when he finds out that no pay is involved he declines, citing his social media channels and his subscribers as his primary focus in life to make quick cash (this guy, man!).  When Ziggy is not screaming at his parents at home, he's trying to get into the inner circle of his high school crush in Lila (Alisha Boe), who's everything that he's not: smart, politically savvy, and yearning to support causes that would positively change the world with no thought of financial gain.  While Ziggy is trying to sheepishly find a way of getting this girl to like him, Evelyn develops a pet project at work with Kyle (Billy Bryk), who's the teen son of Angie (Eleanor Hendricks), who just became a resident of Evelyn's shelter.  Kyle seems to be the polar opposite of Ziggy (he's respectful, kind-hearted, and willing to help those in need).  He's also a very good handyman.  Evelyn starts to get cozy with this young man and strives to convince him to pursue an education versus spending his life working with his hands.  Both he and his mother have other thoughts on the matter. 



In defense of WHEN YOU FINISH SAVING THE WORLD, I will say that the film's most interesting subplot is the latter one just mentioned between Evelyn and Kyle.  She's so lonely and depressed by her lack of a true emotional connection with Ziggy that this new kid in her life almost becomes like a surrogate son for her, which convinces her to quickly become a mentor to him so that she can tailor him to become the type of fine young man that she dreams her own son could be.  This could have been a sensitively rendered story thread in WHEN YOU FINISH SAVING THE WORLD, not to mention that the tension that predictably simmers between Evelyn and Kyle's mother - who is at the shelter and needs Evelyn's care and not her meddling in her son's affairs - should have had better payoffs.  The problem here is that it's never once credible that Kyle would ever want to spend a single second with Evelyn throughout the course of the film,  which stems from the fact that this woman is borderline insufferable in just about any social situation and makes just about everyone around her feel uncomfortable.  Even this woman's interactions with staff are eerie because of how her high-strung nature and emotional detachment makes her so robotic to her employees.  Evelyn is so odd that when she pains to make a sincere compliment to one of her receptionists, the poor girl asks, "Are you firing me?"  It's never once believable that Evelyn would ever form any semblance of a relationship with Kyle...and...come to think about it...how did she ever become the head of a shelter for battered women? 

I didn't like Evelyn.  I didn't like how she acted.  I didn't like the vibe she gave off to everyone in her inner circle, both at home and work.  And I definitely didn't like how this woman - who built a career tending to the needs of abuse victims in dire need - decided to manipulate the son of one of her traumatized residents.  It's just...icky.  Evelyn's son may be even worse.  She's sick minded, yes, but not a purposely mean-spirited individual.  Evelyn just has no idea how ill at ease she makes people feel.  Ziggy, on the other hand, is a petty and conceited jerk that tries to impart his way into a smart and savvy girl's world because he likes her, but what he fails to comprehend is that (a) she will most likely never reciprocate those feelings back and (b) she's driven by selfless imperatives, not profit driven ones.  Ziggy pathetically asks his mom for help with being more political to get this object of his affection's attention, but she can see through his phoniness.  Then Ziggy decides to take Lila's poem - which she passionately performs one evening - and, in a decision born out of pure narcissism, he plays it on his livestream and then tells her how she can find a way to save the world and make money at the same time.  Lila rightfully attacks Ziggy for his rampant narcissism on top of turning her work into a cynical cash grab.  He, on the other hand, is flabbergasted about why she's not impressed with him.  


I can't remember another film in recent memory that made me detest both a mother and her child in equal measure.  WHEN YOU FINISH SAVING THE WORLD is trying to be, I think, about flawed people with impulse control issues that simply have no clue whatsoever about how to form normal bonds with people.  That would make for a compelling character study, but Eisenberg paints his film with such superficial strokes that investing in this material is essentially impossible.  I mean, what the hell is up with these people?  Kyle seems impossibly approving of the freak show that is Evelyn trying to get close to him (that, and she has such intolerable tunnel vision that she just can't accept that this kid may not want to go to college and instead takes solace in life by doing manual labor).  And Ziggy is a leach for being manipulative with Lila; she seems to be the one character in this whole film (outside of Kyle's mother) that justly calls out these people for what they are.  Both Ziggy and Evelyn have issues with projecting love onto others, which is a human frailty that affects many, but they aren't so much flesh and blood people here; they're shallow constructs that facilitate the plot moving forward.  And when Eisenberg tries to end the film on a vaguely hopeful note for them, it just rang so mindlessly false. 

WHEN YOU FINISH SAVING THE WORLD is also visually drab, and Eisenberg shoots the film with such dreary sepia tones and murky lighting that it also manages to be an aesthetic turn off.  I don't think, though, that the performances are bad here, per se, and Moore and Wolfhard are fine in their respective roles with what they're given on the page as broadly drawn caricatures.  At just a scant 88 minutes, maybe there was just not enough breathing room to allow for his story and themes to get thoroughly embellished, and many of the things that Eisenberg wants to say about fragmented family ties, the shallowness of social media-obsessed youth, and the struggles parents have with midlife strife simply don't register with any impact.  While watching WHEN YOU FINISH SAVING THE WORLD, I was constantly thinking about Eisenberg's starring turn in THE ART OF SELF DEFENSE, which had him playing a good young man gone toxically bad.  That Riley Stearns effort showed a chilling underbelly of disagreeable characters, but it did so with style, intelligence, and a lot of nifty genre tricks up its sleeve.  Not much of that is shown in Eisenberg's novice directorial effort, which has some intriguing concepts, but lacks an effective execution of them.  

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