“Everyone around me is a narcissist,” says one of the characters in Jesse Eisenberg’s When You Finish Saving The World. The line gets a big laugh but it spotlights the tough task that Eisenberg, making his feature writing and directing debuts, sets out for himself; making a movie about two characters who no one would want to spend any time with. At least he had the good judgment to cast likable stars in those unlikable roles, with Julianne Moore as Evelyn, a manager of a women’s shelter in Indiana, and Finn Wolfhard as her teenage son, Ziggy.
Evelyn and Ziggy have lost the mother/son connection; she thinks he’s shallow and he thinks she’s a nuisance and a hindrance. She tries to get him interested in volunteering at her woman’s shelter, but he’s only interested if she’d pay him and he’d rather spend his time composing songs which he livestreams on social apps. Unlike his mother, who’s interested in the world, the only thing Ziggy’s concerned about is increasing his follower count; something he mentions to everyone he meets.
So both Evelyn and Ziggy look for substitutes for each other. She becomes too interested in Kyle, (Billy Bryk) the son of a woman at the shelter (Eleonore Hendricks) who fled her home because of an abusive relationship. Kyle is everything Ziggy isn’t; polite, nice to his mother, good at school and he even speaks Spanish. Evelyn tries to get him a college scholarship but ends up crossing so many social boundaries by forcing her values on him.
Ziggy attempts to branch out from his emo music to more socially conscious material when he meets a fellow high school student who’s also a poet (Alisha Boe). She’s smart, engaged in her community and the world at large. Ziggy clumsily tries to become her friend, hoping her worldliness will rub off on him. Or get him more followers.
This is a story of good intentions gone bad, although since the two main characters are such awful people even that is circumspect. Eisenberg is satirizing a certain breed of white liberal who throws around words like “cultural appropriation” at the dinner table. These types of people think they understand the world, and what needs to be done to make it better. Only they are mostly clueless and concerned with looking good rather than doing good. Both Evelyn and Ziggy are unable to read social or emotional clues. They don’t even understand sarcasm.
But they certainly make for a promising jumping off point for a social satire. However once these characters are introduced—and they are introduced pretty well—the film does nothing intriguing with them. The denouement is clear from miles away. While When You Finish Saving The World acts like a comedy in how the story is set up, the laughs never come. With such awful people at its center, one can suppose it wants to be a cringe comedy or a sophisticated social satire. What it ends up being is hollow. There’s nothing there, beyond those somewhat interesting characters.
Moore gives a restrained performance that miraculously doesn’t judge her character at all, despite the screenplay hammering away at Evelyn’s foibles. Wolfhard has a hard task; he has to be alluring enough for us to understand why he has such a huge online following while also being utterly clueless and inarticulate. Unfortunately his performance tilts towards the latter; he does not find the right balance. In contrast, Bryk is so naturally disarming that one can see why Evelyn would try to “save” him. As his mother, Hendricks provides bite as she goes toe to toe with Moore.
Visually familiar, When You Finish Saving The World doesn’t distinguish itself from many other character driven American independent movies. Eisenberg’s main concern is the screenplay, yet the canvas it’s drawing upon is so small that it boxes its imagination. The conflicts it creates for Evelyn and Ziggy are so simple and easily resolved that the film becomes a throwaway that’s quickly forgotten despite some of the cast’s good work.