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When You Finish Saving the World: Eisenberg’s Poignant Debut Asks All the Right Questions

Updated: Jan 20

One of the most heavily anticipated films of this year’s Sundance Film Festival is When You Finish Saving the World, the debut film from actor turned writer-director Jesse Eisenberg. Eisenberg, who is no stranger to this festival, enters for the first time since moving behind the camera and while this sort of transition has yielded varying results, these types of directors are sometimes able to tap into their histories of extensive character work to create layered roles that go far deeper than the page or the screen. Eisenberg sets out with lofty ambitions to try and break open some of the most pressing issues facing the kids of today. To do that, he asks big questions that require a powerful story to ground them. When You Finish Saving the World roots its story into two perfectly parallel characters and uses them to reveal a widespread intergenerational disconnect facing the screen-obsessed young people of today. At its core, Eisenberg’s film is a cry for help for our current generation and a plea to the previous one to try and be more understanding of our communicational and intellectual shortcomings.

Eisenberg, who spent much of his young life portraying painfully awkward kids, has proven with his debut feature that he is also adept at writing and directing them. As a result, our main character Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard) is goodhearted but misguided; a familiar combination that is present in so many of Eisenberg’s characters as well as much of today’s youth. With his guitar and makeshift home studio, this teenage boy appears to be living every kid's dream of mid-level internet fame, but Ziggy is in for a rude awakening when he becomes smitten by Lila (Alisha Boe), a smart, well-read and politically concerned classmate. As he learns more about Lila and her drive to be a part of the larger world around her, Ziggy’s eyes are opened to the ways in which people like him can and must make a difference. So like most young people, Ziggy will embark on a journey in the search for worldly meaning and purpose. As he live streams his trite love songs to his 20,000 followers, Ziggy already feels his reach is massive, but he will soon learn there is so much more to the world than he ever could have imagined, and that it is important to make sure he is doing things for the right reasons. In an attempt to win Lila’s attention, Ziggy scrambles to discover how he too can become well-spoken, globally conscious and motivated. Sadly, the reality for him, and many kids today, is that he lacks the critical thinking and research skills necessary to get a grip on these complex issues. Ziggy doesn’t know how to ask questions, and when he does, we see him learn quickly that being ignorant to the atrocities and complexities of the world is a luxury that many people are not afforded. Despite the social (or real) currency that may come from speaking out in this current landscape of Instagram activism and phony wokeness, kids like Ziggy have a responsibility to truly learn about the world around them. It’s up to them to find out how to help, and how to use the resources and advantages they have to make it a better place for everyone. Oftentimes, parents attempt to shelter their kids from certain complexities about the world in an effort to preserve their innocence, but it is important that children learn about these things from an early age because it forces them to build perspective and helps adjust them to the world. It takes the right kind of teacher to instill these lessons, and throughout this film, we follow Ziggy as he tries to find the right mentor. At this point, one would begin to wonder where the child’s parents come into the mix. While Ziggy’s father occasionally pokes his head out for a confrontational interaction, the emphasized relationship of this film is between Ziggy and his mother, Evelyn (Julianne Moore).

Evelyn, an apparently caring mother, is hopelessly devoted to her work at a shelter where she desperately tries to help others in the hopes of personal fulfillment. When it’s all said and done, Evelyn is a good person. She dedicates so much of her time and effort to helping others less fortunate than her but that doesn’t mean she can’t have struggles in her own personal life. Evelyn’s biggest issue in her life is her relationship with her son. Like many modern parent-child relationships, there’s a significant intergenerational disconnect that we see play out right from the start of the film. Beyond the yelling, rudeness, and clear lack of understanding, there’s a deep-seeded communication issue captured in heartbreaking fashion by Eisenberg’s script. In this age of technology and social media, it becomes increasingly alarming how people’s communication skills are being devolved. Oftentimes we blame this on phone addiction and a lack of real-world experience, but we forget how overwhelming the current landscape can be and that kids especially are a product of their generational influences. Unfortunately, many kids are forced to learn a lot of life lessons from TV and the Internet and as their perceived connection to their domain grows, they are often losing sight of the real issues of the world right outside their door. This is certainly the case for Ziggy, as he livestreams his music all over the world but can’t seem to understand how to connect with the kids at his school, let alone a person who lives in his house. As we see Evelyn and Ziggy clash, we watch Evelyn drift away from her family and pour herself into her work, where we see her attempt to form a bond with a boy the same age as her son whose mother just arrived at the shelter. It’s obvious that, like Ziggy, Evelyn is trying to fill a void in her life with a new relationship, but this movie begs the question, “Can these new relationships actually be fulfilling enough to compensate for what has been broken?”

What we see unfold between this mother and her son is an extremely competitive chess match for fulfillment, and when these characters collide, it brings out the best in both performances. Wolfhard and Moore so believably and brilliantly embody the intergenerational archetypes and do a beautiful job highlighting Eisenberg’s excellent character work. With When you Finish Saving the World, Eisenberg ambitiously attempts to capture the plight of today’s young people with a deep concern for future generations. Does he get everything right? No, but this film is certainly compelling enough to pose the right questions, and asking these types of massive generational questions is usually a good sign for any filmmaker.

When You Finish Saving the World held its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 2022 and is playing in theaters now.

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