In Jesse Eisenberg’s smart directorial debut, ““ When You Finish Saving the World,”” Julianne Moore plays a character named Evelyn, who appears to be a Good Person on the surface. Evelyn runs a non-profit organization for victims of domestic abuse and is known for her charitable nature. She drives a small, eco-friendly car and is often seen listening to classical music. She lives an unflashy yet privileged life, in a nice suburban home with her husband and teenage son. However, Evelyn is not content with her life and struggles to find happiness.
Her state of being is more like one of smug satisfaction — or it might be were it not for her high school age kid. Despite all her best efforts to mold him in her image, he has become his own person, and it’s a person she doesn’t particularly like.
The kid in question, Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard) decided some time ago that money and fame were what he wanted in life, and he’s gotten a small taste of both through a decently popular YouTube channel where he livestreams songs for a growing audience of young girls who then throw money at him through likes. He is also smug, in a different way, and resentful of his mother’s sanctimoniousness. He couldn’t care less about her Good Work and Good Life Choices.
Ziggy seems to have been shaped in Eisenberg’s image, or at the least the image we have of him as an awkward, deeply insecure person who masks his insecurity with cruelty and intelligence in films like “The Social Network” and “The Squid and the Whale.” Wolfhard embodies the cadence and emotion and affect of his director’s on screen persona perfectly.
The heart of the film is the aching missed connections between mother and son. They have, they know, so much to be grateful for and yet can’t seem to rise above their superficial differences. It’s discontented suburban white people, sure, but Eisenberg keeps it fresh, modern and piercing. This point is hammered in, sometimes too bluntly, as both glom onto what they imagine to be ideal companions outside of the home.
Ziggy develops a crush on a serious, politically motivated peer, Lila (Alisha Boe), and tries on a social justice persona to get in her good graces. He has not yet learned to distinguish a woman’s kindness from romantic interest. And so he asks Evelyn for help on how to sound smart and political. Rather than using it as an opportunity to connect, she decides it’s a teaching moment to scold him to do the work. They are both right and they are both wrong.
It’s hard not to watch this and cringe at your own teenage brattiness, but Ziggy is not the only party at fault. He at least has the excuse of his wild teenage brain to blame. Evelyn, on the other hand, does not. The capacity for immaturity is boundless.
Eisenberg’s script goes hard on this very imperfect mother and Moore fully commits to her awkwardness and cruelty that she hides behind her Goodness. At the center where she works, she finds a stand-in son, a boy about Ziggy’s age who has come in with his mother to help her get some reprieve from an abusive husband. Kyle (Billy Bryk) is a wildly decent and thoughtful kid — kind to a fault and eager to please. The fact that Kyle has emerged this good from a household so outwardly “bad” breaks something in her brain. She starts to claim Kyle as her own, dreaming about his future, taking him out to dinner, failing to see how uncomfortable she is making him.
As the story progresses, the tension between Evelyn and Ziggy only grows as they continue to misunderstand each other and push each other away. But, when a series of unexpected events forces them to confront their issues head-on, they begin to realize that they may not be so different after all.
Eisenberg’s directorial debut is a striking exploration of the complexities of family dynamics and the struggles of growing up. With a strong performance from Moore and a nuanced portrayal of Ziggy from Wolfhard, the film delves deep into the conflicts and struggles that can arise between parents and children.
It’s a smart and thought-provoking film that will have audiences questioning their own relationships and the ways in which they interact with their loved ones. With strong themes of self-discovery and growth, “When You Finish Saving the World” is a must-watch for anyone looking for a thought-provoking and emotionally resonant film.