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Sundance 2022 Review: When You Finish Saving the World – “Jesse Eisenberg’s aesthetically pleasing family drama”

Finn Wolfhard and Julianne Moore appear in When You Finish Saving the World by Jesse Eisenberg, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Beth Garrabrant.

In the Q&A for Jesse Eisenberg’s directorial debut, When you’re Finished Saving the World, star Finn Wolfhard described the helmer as, ‘the most visibly anxious actor in the world.’ He’s not wrong. Eisenberg has made a career of playing anxious and awkward, characteristics that in real life he also seems to endearingly possess. In fact his friend Riley Stearns (who directed him in The Art of Self Defense) congratulated Eisenberg on the premiere via Twitter adding ‘He is also the only filmmaker I know who is actually relived his premiere is not in person – I love him.’ So it makes sense then that for his first time behind the camera, Jesse Eisenberg emulates what he knows best.

Check out our Sundance Film Festival coverage

Based on his Audible Original project of the same name, When You’re Finished Saving the World concentrates on the story of Evelyn and her son Finn. Evelyn Katz (Julianne Moore) is the manager of a domestic abuse shelter. She has the same routine every morning, making her coffee and driving her environmentally friendly smart car to work while blasting classical music.  She runs a tight ship, and understandably so to make the women and children under her care feel safe. She spends every day saving others, and every day understanding her son, Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard) less.

Ziggy, a high school student, spends his spare time live streaming his original folk-rock songs on a social media platform. His mom doesn’t even know what that means, his dad wanders the house reading and enjoying his next glass of Malbec. With 20,000 followers that he’ll DEFINITELY remind you about, Ziggy feels like he’s on his way to success. That is, until his crush, Lila (Alisha Boe, 13 Reasons Why) opens his eyes to the atrocities of the world outside his tiny bubble.

When Evelyn welcomes Angie (Eleonore Hendricks) and her son Kyle (Billy Bryk) into the shelter she is immediately moved at their connection and strikes up a bond with the 17-year-old who is kind, helpful and emotionally connected to his mother. He’s everything she always wished Ziggy would be. Kyle is a mature, sensitive teenager forced to grow up too fast, while Evelyn’s son is still a kid, a very lucky kid as she reminds him. She attempts to fill the son shaped void she feels with Kyle, making one cringe-worthy decision after another, while Ziggy attempts to deliver his new found minimal political knowledge to his social media fans in an equally ill-equipped manner. Perhaps when both mother and son are finished ‘saving the world’ they’ll have time for each other.

In Eisenberg’s aesthetically pleasing if not simply shot family drama, all of the main Katz family are unbearable narcissists, but with somewhat redeemable qualities. Like family, there are moments (many in this case) you don’t particularly like these characters, but unlike family you’re only stuck with these ones for 88 minutes. Julianne Moore is wonderful as the rigid and restrained Evelyn, unglamorous, unforgiving and unrelenting in her need for connection. Certainly one of her better more recent outings.  So many times her character makes horrible decisions, but her compassion and overall mission allows some leeway in her actions. Canadian Finn Wolfhard, who also worked on the Audible Original, holds his own against the experienced actor, sometimes seeming to channel some of Eisenberg’s innate awkwardness.

Yet, for all the nuanced moments of this dysfunctional family who largely live independent lives, When You’re Done Saving the World’s climactic moment runs a little flat, if a little late. That said, perhaps we can thank the director for not allowing his film, which will leave you cringing more often than not, down a road where it’s tied with a neat little bow. We are left to question whether Evelyn and Ziggy can ever bridge the generational gap (more like a chasm) between them or if they’ll continue to misunderstand each other’s motivations. Will they put in the work to understand one another and build a deeper connection? The one thing that is clear from Eisenberg’s debut is that changing the world can’t happen with a shortcut. Not even changing your own small world.

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