Festivals, Reviews

Sundance 2022: ‘When You Finish Saving the World’ – Jesse Eisenberg’s Directorial Debut is a Thin Mother-Son Drama

In an adaptation of his five-hour audio play for Audible, Jesse Eisenberg gives us a look into Evelyn Katz (Julianne Moore), who runs a domestic violence shelter, and her son Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard), a teen preoccupied with internet fame. As Eisenberg introduces his film to an all-virtual Sundance audience, yet again for the second year in a row, he presents it as a story of a mother-and-son relationship embroiled in diverging values.

The film emphasizes that these two characters are successful and important people in their respective fields, though they’re two different worlds. Evelyn helps those affected by the unsafe environment of their homes while Ziggy entertains people from across the globe.

The film establishes their separate lives right from the opening. Ziggy greets his fans as they wait for his new song to debut on a platform called Hi-Hat, sort of like TikTok, and the song settles us into his world of domestic security in a small town in Indiana. He has 20,000 followers all over the world which, he mentions with every chance he gets. As his song plays, the film cuts to Evelyn in the shelter. Both their work is driven by touching other people’s lives.

The cold open makes it clear that these will be two different stories only tied together by their domestic relationship.

As Evelyn starts to bond with a shelter resident’s son Kyle (Billy Bryck), Ziggy, on the other hand, sets his sights on a politically conscious classmate, Lila (Alisha Boe). These relationships they have procured made me cringe; they try to connect with them but their narcissistic personalities, as pointed out by the irrelevant head of the Katz family Roger (Jay O. Sanders), show how incapable they are of connecting with others. Their pursuits in life may seem altruistic but inside both mother and son are selfish and shallow. 

Eisenberg explores the complexities of mother-son relationships with the use of internet fame and social work. He presents it as if they are complete opposites but are actually more alike than they would like to admit. That said, the connection Eisenberg is trying to make between the mother and son never made any sense. It didn’t feel like a film about a mother and her son. Evelyn and Ziggy’s relationship is emphasized as the center of the story but their relationship with the other characters sidelined this. It felt like two different movies running simultaneously that are only tied together by their thin maternal bond.

Was there a message about how internet culture takes over our lives? Is it about a woman who works a virtuous profession centered on human connection but cannot connect with anyone? Eisenberg examines many different topics as a backdrop for such difficult people, seeing art and social justice as opposing things. The portrayal of Gen Z’s social activism felt forced and artificial while the running of the shelter felt sincere and true.

As an actor-writer-turned-director, Eisenberg delivers a dialogue-driven film that brings out great performances from Moore and Wolfhard, and his stylization is apparent. Its deadpan deliveries and cringe moments worked well. It is entertaining and charming but the story was lost with so many themes it tried to explore. It was like a teenager trying to stay informed on what issues to care about, jumping from one Instagram infographic to another.

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