When You Finish Saving the World begins with Ziggy Katz (Finn Wolfhard) playing a song for his 20,000 followers. Going by the name of TheRealZiggyKatz, he sings of “two high speed trains on parallel tracks,” which are “never gonna crash, but never gonna meet.” It’s a fitting start for the directorial debut Jesse Eisenberg, in his look at a mother and son dynamic that can’t quite connect and sympathize with each other, yet attempt to find that connection and bond they once had with other people.
Ziggy’s mother Evelyn (Julianne Moore) works at a shelter for victims of domestic abuse and latches onto Kyle (Billy Bryk), who brought his mother to the shelter and has a compassion that she once hoped to see in her son. While Kyle seems content to work in his father’s auto repair shop, Evelyn wants to push his potential, as she attempts to get him into college and maybe follow in her footsteps.
Meanwhile, Ziggy has fallen for his classmate Lila (Alisha Boe), an extremely political student who he desperately wants to impress. While his songs about middle school graduation and unrequited love might not get her attention, he thinks that maybe showing that he can care about something greater might win her over.
Eisenberg — who also wrote the film which is based on his 2020 audio drama — focuses on how these two are eagerly trying to find what they don’t have in each other, yet their impatience and lack of compassion for each other means they miss what’s right in front of them. At one point, Roger (Jay O. Sanders), husband of Evelyn and father of Ziggy, says “everyone around me is a narcissist,” and he’s absolutely right. Both Evelyn and Ziggy are so stuck in their own needs that it’s hard for them to see what the others around them actually need.
Eisenberg handles a difficult balance for Evelyn and Ziggy, both of whom are oblivious and lost, and frequently irritating in their quest to find what they’re missing. His script is never too dry or mean, but allows for sympathy for these two that are so clearly struggling in their own ways. At times, When You Finish Saving the World is borderline cringey in the way Eisenberg’s characters act, or in their ignorance towards those that are close to them. Eisenberg shows a deft ability to push the likability of these characters, while also still making them sympathetic in their own ways — which Eisenberg himself has clearly had to do in his roles in The Social Network and The Squid and the Whale, amongst others.
Sundance has long been a great place for actors to present their first films as directors, be it last year with Rebecca Hall’s Passing, or in recent years with Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade or Paul Dano’s Wildlife. But right out the gate, Eisenberg brings a strong sense of style to his debut that in some way can feel like the amalgamation of his past experiences. Take the bleak humor of The Double, the absurd domestic comedy of Vivarium, and the dark warmth that David Fincher could capture in The Social Network, mix them all together and one can sort of see how Eisenberg comes into filmmaking fully formed, an exciting new presence behind the camera, after proving himself in front of it.
Yet naturally, When You Finish Saving the World works because of the performances by Wolfhard and Moore. Wolfhard is incognizant of the world around him, but in a childish and unchallenged way, to the point that he uses slang that only he seems to know. Moore is also quite good as the mother who believed her son would one day be “one of the good ones,” and now tries to find a stand-in for her son. Wolfhard and Moore work well separately, but it’s the rare moments where they are together that show the power of this bond, and the deep-seated resent that exists between them. When Ziggy asks his mom to wait five seconds for him, she counts those seconds to herself, then leaves him behind. When Evelyn interrupts her son during a live stream performance, he drills a gigantic red light into the wall outside his bedroom to let her know when to not come into his room. We’re not seeing a mother and son falling apart, we’re seeing them nursing long-held wounds.
Eisenberg’s debut is a tale of two high-speed trains on parallel tracks that are struggling to meet, complete with warm cinematography from Benjamin Loeb (Mandy, After Yang) and a haunting score by Emile Mosseri (Minari) that sounds like it could’ve been made by TheRealZiggyKatz himself. When You Finish Saving the World is often acidic to a point that might scare away some, but at its core, Eisenberg’s film is an endearing story of mother and son who were once so close, and now struggle to get what they need from each other anymore.
When You Finish Saving the World premiered at Sundance this week, but no theatrical release date has been announced yet.