Actor, playwright, and author Jesse Eisenberg makes his directorial debut with “When You Finish Saving the World,” the film adaptation of his Audible series about characters learning to understand those closest to them, as well as themselves. He focuses his story on an uptight mother and her teenage son, exploring what happens when two family members have a different set of values but still have to live with and love each other. It sounds good on paper, but this is the type of film that you finish watching because you feel like you have to, not because you want to.
Evelyn (Julianne Moore) runs a domestic violence shelter and is dismissive of her son Ziggy’s (Finn Wolfhard) hobby of writing and singing subpar teen pop songs that he live streams for tips over the internet. Ziggy has become a bit of a disappointment to his activist mother, who used to take her son to protest rallies when he was younger. The boy lost interest in acts of advocacy long ago, but that changes when he discovers the prettiest girl at school, Lila (Alisha Boe), is deeply interested in all things political. In the blink of an eye, the pop songs turn to folk anthems as Ziggy tries to fake sincerity and concern about the state of the world to get Lila to notice him. Evenlyn chides her son for taking shortcuts, and the object of his affection can see right through his shallow attempts.
In the meantime, Evelyn begins a surrogate parent and child relationship with the son (Billy Bryk) of one of the women living in her shelter, forcing a bond that’s just not there by asking him to do handyman work around the shelter, encouraging him to apply to college, and generally sticking her nose where it doesn’t belong. None of this goes over well for anyone, but it gets Ziggy and Evelyn to a place of greater understanding and a hopeful connection.
The story has typical family dynamics and fails to offer anything with much insight. The characters are uninteresting and unpleasant, especially how they each think they know what others want, their narcissistic traits puffing up their importance in the world. Evelyn and Ziggy each claim to be making a difference when in reality, they’re changing absolutely nothing. It’s not easy to feel much sympathy for these people.
Eisenberg’s directorial style fits his personality (or at least what I imagine his personality to be), with a straightforward yet awkward home movie feel and drab-hued cinematography. I didn’t find much in the way of artistic originality, but he has a good enough eye for filming a story about the human condition. There seems to be something about actors directing other actors, and Eisenberg is able to get strong turns from his leads and his supporting cast.
“When You Finish Saving the World” is ultimately about learning to listen to and hear other people. It’s a story about generations attempting to connect, a mother and son growing apart only to find what’s missing in their lives is each other. This probably couldn’t have been a better film, but it’s not a very pleasant or enjoyable one.