In his directorial debut, actor Jesse Eisenberg attempts something we might not expect from a first-time filmmaker: a cold, hard look at narcissism. Talk about setting yourself up for failure. Who wants to spend a couple of hours with a couple of self-obsessed jackasses? But When You Finish Saving the World (which would have benefited from a snappier title) is not only a unique family drama, it’s an articulate portrait of arrogance and self-absorption. Although social media plays a part in this scenario, looming in the background like a shadow, Eisenberg is more interested in the strained interpersonal relationship between a mother and son who share personality traits, particularly the bad ones.
Reminiscent of indie dramas from the early 2000’s like The Squid and the Whale, which nudged Eisenberg into the spotlight as a rising star, this A24 film takes place in Bloomington, Indiana, where our protagonists live in a modest, tree lined neighborhood. Julianne Moore plays Evelyn, the stone-faced mother of Ziggy, an effective Finn Wolfhard (Stranger Things). Her husband, Roger (Jay O. Sanders), is a lumbering former professor, who seems more concerned about what they’re having for dinner than the tense atmosphere.
The movie focuses on Ziggy, an introverted teen who spends most of his time playing awful folk songs on a livestream to his 20,000 followers, which he boasts about at every opportunity. Ziggy is painfully adrift in his supposed social media fame (and the money he makes from it); he even installs a gigantic on-air light outside his bedroom which flashes and swirls whenever he goes live so nobody will interrupt him. You’d think his parents lived with Howard Stern.
Ziggy might be unabashedly smug, but his mother doesn’t fare much better. With a strained smile that looks downright painful, she runs a shelter for victims of domestic abuse. The job requires an inordinate amount of compassion, but Evelyn is distant and haughty with the women she checks in. This is the last person you’d expect to run a crisis center. She’s equally withdrawn with her son who she constantly berates for his music, his YouTube channel, and his sloppy appearance. This might be the first time Moore has played someone this conceited and sanctimonious, and she’s simply stunning. She’s so believable, in fact, one wishes Eisenberg, who also wrote the script, clarified the basis for her torment. But the movie isn’t interested in backstory as much as exploring how narcissism exists in the confines of a family and the world at large.
Evelyn and Ziggy’s careless vanity turns on them when two new people enter their lives. For Ziggy, it’s Lila (Alisha Boe), a pretty student at his high school who’s interested in social justice and politics. With his guitar strapped to his back, Ziggy follows her around and talks to her in fits and starts like a robot who needs a reboot. At first, she finds his bumbling awkwardness charming, but after he brags about how much money he makes by playing songs about the disenfranchised, she sees him as pathetically lost. Like his mother, Ziggy views helping others as an opportunity for self-aggrandizement.
Evelyn also gets a reality check when she meets a teenager, Kyle (Billy Bryk), who comes to live in the shelter with his mother who’s escaping her abusive husband. When she sees how good Kyle is with his mother, something stirs inside her, and she starts taking an unhealthy interest in him. She takes him to dinner, persuades him to apply for college, and continually injects her ideas into his life. Just as Ziggy can’t see how uncomfortable he makes Lila, Evelyn is equally oblivious to Kyle’s squeamishness. For Ziggy and Evelyn, other people are mere projects to feed their own agendas.
This is a surprisingly confident debut from an actor who must’ve picked up a few tips from working with veterans like David Fincher and Noah Baumbach. He keeps the camera steady and never cuts away from extended scenes of dialogue. Tonally, it’s droll yet meek, absorbing and sincere. Although the film never offers any solutions -which is refreshing- it’s a strong commentary on how humanity can lose touch with itself.
Moviegoers who require a modicum of “likeability” in their characters won’t find it here. Ziggy is clearly a victim of his social strata, but what’s wrong with Evelyn? Since we’re never shown a softer side of her angular personality, we’re kept at a distance.
This distance between the audience and the characters gives the narrative a strange potency, but it’s also muddled. Thankfully, the script never slips into didacticism. The characters remain the focus of the story, not its message, although the message is clear— today’s kids and teens are having trouble connecting with humanity and their parents can’t relate because they have their own problems. By portraying two broken souls who can’t fit into society, Eisenberg is also forcing us to ask about society itself. Besides, when the world is finished with Ziggy and Evelyn, they only have each other, and that’s a fight they can’t turn away from.
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