Oscar-nominated actor, author, and playwright Jesse Eisenberg makes his feature film writing and directing debut with When You Finish Saving The World, which premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival last night. It’s adapted from his own award-winning Audible Original audiobook voiced by Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhard who reprises his role as Ziggy Katz.
The Indiana high schooler has amassed an audience of 20,000 international fans—as he’ll gladly tell you within the first few seconds of meeting him—who watch his frequent live-streamed performances of the kind of songs you might expect a young high school kid with limited life experience to write. They’re not terrible, but not exactly great either. A balance that the musically talented Wolfhard carries off well. In any case, you’ve got to admire his dedication, as well as his commitment to keeping his mother Evelyn (Julianne Moore) out of his bedroom by installing a huge rotating red light outside to indicate that he’s performing live. With the audiobook set in the 2030s, Ziggy uses the cool slang of the day, some of which Eisenberg has retained for the present day set film; with words like “lift”, which means something like excellent, and “tera”, a synonym for really or very. Words which Ziggy is noticeably alone in using, but seems determined to introduce.
Evelyn is pretty dismissive of her son’s pursuit and disappointed that he doesn’t show more interest in what she’s committed her life to; running a shelter for survivors of domestic abuse. However, when Angie (Eleonore Hendricks) and her seventeen-year-old son Kyle (an excellent Billy Bryk) come to live at Evelyn’s shelter she immediately sees potential in the young man that she no longer sees in her own son and determinedly takes him under her wing. She quickly becomes focused on Kyle being enrolled in a good college that will take him away from his father’s auto repair shop where he has contentedly been working, but doesn’t take the time to discover what he really wants out of life. In fact, her communication skills mean that she struggles to hold even a brief conversation with one of her longterm employees as she waits for the office elevator and in one memorable scene can’t bring herself to say a simple ‘happy birthday’ to a colleague.
Ziggy, who sports his own branded merch, is at ease speaking to his adoring fans and thanking them for their tips; even if it’s in that rather forced and unnatural YouTube speak that put me in mind of Elsie Fisher’s character in Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade). When it comes to striking up a conversation with the girl he likes at school though, Lila (a captivating and charismatic Alisha Boe), he becomes awkward and clueless. While Ziggy is absorbed by his music career, Lila is interested in and knowledgeable about politics and social justice, spending her evenings at an LGBTQ-inclusive space taking part in open mic nights, where we see her read a poem she’s written about the impact of colonialism. Ziggy’s own song about the last day of school is less well-received by the group, but he’s determined to connect with Lila even if that means learning to say the right thing rather than becoming genuinely knowledgeable about what she’s interested in. All she wants is for him to be genuine, though she’s flattered by his interest in her poetry.
As the film progresses it’s clear that mother and son are more similar than it might first appear or than either of them would care to admit. These are bold, clearly drawn characters that are fully embodied by Wolfhard and Moore and it’s a delight, if an uncomfortable one, to see the friction as they rub up against one another. Much of the film’s tension though comes from Evelyn relentlessly pushingly Kyle towards a future he’s shown little interest in, leading to some uncomfortable but compelling scenes between them. It’s a heightened version of that situation that many of us will have been caught up in at some point, when parents say outright, ‘why can’t you be more like your friend?’
Admirably, Evelyn has spent her adult life helping others, but what has her motivation been? To avoid feeling guilty about doing something else that in her view doesn’t matter or contribute meaningfully to society? Does that mean everyone else’s less altruistic interests should automatically be dismissed? Like Lila, Kyle has already worked out that dedicating himself to work that he finds satisfying and in its way is important to others, like fixing people’s cars so they can go about their lives, isn’t a waste of his talents. As for Ziggy—a self-promotor who is building a brand around himself—along with making music, money and fame seem to be his chief motivations, but is art meeting commerce such a bad thing? What real good will Lila reading a poem to like-minded friends within her socially conscious echo chamber do? Eisenberg’s screenplay leads us to ponder all of this and more as the film plays out.
Ziggy’s father Roger (Jay O. Sanders) is immersed in his own world too, and Eisenberg vividly captures the three figures moving around the house in their own bubbles. In a darkly humourous moment of failed connection, father and son sit opposite each other at the dinner table with Roger holding up his newspaper in front of him asking his son if he’s OK as he reads an article about suicide, emphasizing that Ziggy is currently in the moist high risk demographic. Given the lack of real interest his parents show in him no wonder he’s craving attention and approval online and so proud of the number of fans he’s amassed for his performances. The two central characters might be misguided, or narcissists as Roger accuses them of being, but there are no villains here.
Eisenberg’s dialogue does have a pleasing theatrical quality to it at times, but the film itself is never stagey. Shot on 16mm by cinematographer Benjamin Loeb, there’s a gorgeous timeless quality to the look of the film, which at a tight 88 minutes continually engages and never overstays its welcome.
By James Kleinmann
When You Finish Saving The World premiered at Sundance 2022, with further online screenings at Festival.Sundance.org.