When You Finish Saving The World [Sundance ’22 Review]

When You Finish Saving The World still of Evelyn (Julianne Moore) and Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard)

When You Finish Saving The World premiered at Sundance 2022 and marks the feature directorial debut of Jesse Eisenberg and stars Julianne Moore and Finn Wolfhard as a mother and son who have polar opposite values. Quirky with a helping of cringe and creep, When You Finish Saving The World is entertaining, although it lacks deeper substance. Julianne Moore stands out in her role as Evelyn, and Finn Wolfhard’s character, Ziggy, displays a level of white, entitled, lazy narcissism with an obsession that encapsulates a generation prizing their value with likes on social media. 

While Libby Summer may have deemed obsession an essential component for creativity, Christina Ricci captures the reality in her quote: “any obsession is dangerous.” In When You Finish Saving The World, we have two people obsessed with their various passions. Evelyn lives with her husband and son but has shallow relationships with everyone, including her loved ones. Social etiquette and niceties feel phony outside the home, but the situation is disturbing when they encompass life in the house. 

Characters Cut From The Same Narcissistic Mold

Initially, Evelyn’s focus is aiding women at her domestic abuse shelter, and while this is a worthy pursuit to help women, she has no meaningful connection to anyone. As such, Evelyn latches onto a teen boy, Kyle (Billy Bryk), and uses him as a replacement for the relationship she does not have with her son instead of trying harder to bridge that gap. Even though Kyle is a fully-formed human being with a mother, Evelyn views him as hers with a deranged level of territoriality that builds fast. Even how she hides Kyle from her family feels like a person concealing an affair. So Evelyn is both white, alarming, and annoying with her “I’m great because I dedicate myself to a higher calling” yet riveting thanks to Julianne Moore’s performance in When You Finish Saving The World.

When You Finish Saving The World still of director Jesse Eisenberg
When You Finish Saving The World director Jesse Eisenberg courtesy of Sundance 2022

Despite feeling like his mother does not understand him, Ziggy is the same as his mom. They only differ in who they are latching onto and why. Ziggy feels validated from upvotes on Hi-Hat, where he performs superficial, trite music for listeners. To gain the attention of a classmate, Lila (Alisha Boe), he pretends to care about politics. But again, this is self-serving and about what he wants, and politics, even Lila, are a means to an end—Ziggy’s desire. 

Neither Kyle nor Lila matter outside what Evelyn and Ziggy want from them. Even Evelyn’s husband and Ziggy’s father in When You Finish Saving The World is nothing more than an ornament, an adornment in the lives of Evelyn and Ziggy. Evelyn feels empty and seeks validation, helping the downtrodden, and Ziggy feels empty and seeks validation through upvotes and monetary gain. Their obsessive parasitism oscillates between embarrassing and disturbing, but you can’t look away because you’re waiting for a shoe to drop that ultimately if it did, is soundless. 

Directing Strong For A First Feature

The directing in When You Finish Saving The World from Jesse Eisenberg is strong, and this is a promising feature debut. Though the characters are interesting, they seem like aspects of Eisenberg rather than separate, distinct identities. The writing is good here as well as the dialogue and characters are zany, particularly Ziggy with his constant “tera lift” catchphrase that reminded me of Naruto’s “dattebayo.” The conversation feels like Eisenberg-speak, which is not necessarily bad but may not continue to translate well. The entertainment lies in the refreshing dialogue, but there is not much beyond that. 

Despite the film’s shallowness, thanks to the writing, directing, and powerful performances from Julianne Moore and Finn Wolfhard, When You Finish Saving The World is watchable. Eisenberg’s voice and style come through loud and clear, so if you’re a fan of that, you will love this film even more. I enjoyed the film, but I like the potential promise of things to come more. It is no surprise that it is part of A24’s collection of offbeat cinema. Worth a viewing, but don’t expect more than an entitled, white savior snapshot of characters with little emotional depth or development portrayed by an, albeit, fantastic cast. The dramatic and comedic beats are there they just lack lasting impact.

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