When You Finish Saving the World, Jesse Eisenberg’s directorial debut, follows an obnoxious do-gooder mom (Julieanne Moore) and her obnoxious vlogger son (Finn Wolfhard) who are both mostly unpleasant in an almost-funny way that doesn’t quite rise to the level of comedy or satire. A24 is distributing the film but hasn’t yet set a date for the wider release.
Moore plays Evelyn, a gentle Earth mother but a dark cloud in the break room, who often seems like the fun police, both at the battered women’s shelter she runs and at home, where she answers the requisite questions from her husband (Jay O. Sanders) about how her day went with a litany of other people’s problems appropriated as her own. Her son Ziggy (Wolfhard), is a sort of proto-Justin Bieber, prone to telling everyone how many followers he has on HiHat, a fictional site where he gets paid for live-streaming his Ben Kweller-ish folk-rock (with music by Emile Mosseri). The rub is that they’re both narcissists, who don’t take each other for granted so much as barely see each other to begin with.
Evelyn eventually meets Kyle (Billy Bryk), the teen son of a woman staying at her shelter, who seems respectful and engaged in exactly the ways that her son isn’t. Soon Evelyn makes Kyle her project, lavishing the kind of attention on him that she withholds from Ziggy, taking him out to Ethiopian food and trying to get him a scholarship to Oberlin. Kyle doesn’t actually want any of these things, obviously, and Ziggy is in any case preoccupied with Lila (Alisha Boe), a deadly earnest social justice girl who reads poems about the Marshall Islands at the local open mic for obnoxious art youths.
The Kyle and Lila storylines never converge with the Ziggy/Evelyn story, which is fine, I guess. The bigger problem is that while Evelyn and Ziggy are both unlikable in believable enough ways, they’re never quite deliciously unlikable, compellingly unlikable. Their mutual shittiness (and Lila’s as well) don’t quite land as jokes, and aren’t really explored enough to work as satire. It’s hard to figure out what exactly Eisenberg wants to say about these ostentatious characters. The music is probably the strongest element, nicely riding the line between gratingly cloying and genuinely catchy.
To his credit, Wolfhard is much more effective here than he was in the most recent Ghostbusters movie, maybe because Ziggy’s obnoxious is more intentional. Moore is solid as always, but oddly enough, the most interesting character in the film is a kid who dresses like an Irish day laborer from 1925 and sings pro-union folk songs, who we see only in passing at Lila’s open mic. Who is that guy? What’s his deal? Where everyone else is playing a slightly different flavor of shitlib caricature, the mini Woody Guthrie at least feels like a bit of a wild card.
To its credit, When You Finish Saving The World is only 85 minutes long, so even if it doesn’t exactly set the world on fire at least it doesn’t overstay its welcome. There was maybe something here but it feels a little undercooked.
‘When You Finish Saving The World’ is currently playing the Sundance Film Festival. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.