Finn Wolfhard and Julianne Moore star in “When You Finish Saving the World.” Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute
Jan. 20 (UPI) — Jesse Eisenberg’s debut film as a writer/director, When You Finish Saving the World, lives up to its title. It captures both the desire to make a difference and the frustration with the limitations one faces making such attempt. The title is ironic, as setting out to save the world is a task no one can complete in the best of circumstances.
Evelyn Katz (Julianne Moore) works at Spruce Haven Women’s Shelter, giving abused women and their children a safe place to live. Her son, Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard) livestreams his music for adoring, and paying fans online.
When Ziggy wants to impress Lila (Alisha Boe), a politically minded classmate, he tries to learn about the causes that matter to her. Meanwhile, Evelyn sees potential in the son of a woman at her shelter, and encourages him to pursue college and social work.
What Eisenberg really captures is how good intentions can blind people to their counterproductive actions. Both Ziggy and Evelyn are trying way too hard. They become overbearing.
Ziggy is motivated to get political for Lila, but he still has to learn what those issues entail. That frustrates him as world politics would frustrate an adult, let alone a teenager.
The best thing Ziggy does in the whole movie is asking Lila to teach him about her activism. That’s the right way to connect with someone, rather than trying to present what you hope will impress them. They’re still teenagers though, and Ziggy makes some leaps that aren’t in the best interests of the cause.
Evelyn is careful. You can tell she’s someone who’s handled sensitive situations for many years, but sometimes she still misjudges and oversteps. Evelyn is correct to observe traits of kindness in a young man and see the potential for social work. However, she too can micromanage and become oblivious to his real needs.
The dynamic of the Katz family is actually more important to the film than the social change the characters want. Between the mother, the son and the husband/father Roger (Jay O. Sanders), these are three people who talk at each other rather than with each other.
The Katzes are a portrait of a disconnected family, but not because they aren’t trying. Rather, they’re trying without adapting. Roger reads articles and tells Ziggy what he read, but that’s not relevant to Ziggy.
Evelyn gives Ziggy space for his livestreams, but doesn’t take the time to watch or listen. If anything, she seems to be masking her judgment of his activities.
Ziggy is a teenager figuring himself out with access to all the technology modern people have at their disposal. He uses slang, calling good things “lift” and using “terra” for emphasis.
His music is above average, but he’s not a prodigy. He has a normal teenage voice, but plays the guitar in tune.
Although the title When You Finish Saving the World suggests the characters may all suffer from a bit of hubris, it’s not condemning people for trying to make a difference. If anything, it’s reassuring people that they don’t have to fix everything, but they should support the people close to them.
When You Finish Saving the World premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.
Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.