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Review: When You Finish Saving the World

January 26, 2023

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The directorial debut of actor Jesse Eisenberg, When You Finish Saving the World (which had its premiere at Sundance in 2022) is a quirky comedic story about a self-absorbed mother and son who are struggling to reconnect.

The son, Ziggy Katz (Finn Wolfhard), is a budding teenage singer-songwriter who is preoccupied with making money by performing his songs on livestreams for twenty thousand fans around the world (which he brags about constantly).

Ziggy’s mother, Evelyn (Julianne Moore), runs a shelter for women fleeing domestic abuse. The two have reached somewhat of an impasse in their relationship, with their interactions mostly limited to him yelling at her to stay out of his room while he’s livestreaming.

When Evelyn meets Kyle (Billy Byrk), a sensitive teen boy who comes into the shelter with his mom Angie (Eleonore Hendricks), she is naturally drawn to him. Kyle is everything that Evelyn wished for in a son; kind, caring, and attentive to his mother’s needs. So she starts spending time with him, as a proxy for her own increasingly aloof offspring. Meanwhile, Ziggy is fixated only on gaining the attention of Lila (Alisha Boe), a politically-minded student at his school who he becomes obsessed with trying to impress, but has no real clue about any of the political or world issues that she talks about.

The implied sarcasm of the title is the point; these are deeply self-absorbed people who are so obsessed with their own sense of importance that they think they are saving the world. They are so stuck in their own worlds that Ziggy’s father and Evelyn’s husband, Roger (Jay O. Sanders), who seems to constantly be waiting for them at home with a glass of wine and a newspaper, barely even registers. But, as much as Eisenberg is poking fun at these privileged, upper middle class virtue-signallers, he also recognizes the neurosis and insecurities beneath this mindset.

The film has a satirical bent to it in its portrait of self-aggrandizing liberal do-gooders meddling in the lives of others to feel better about themselves, that is matched by the genuine sweetness of the ending. Eisenberg’s voice rings through in his often witty writing (we can practically hear some of Wolfhard’s line deliveries in his tone), and he also draws clear inspiration from Noah Baumbach’s 2005 film The Squid and the Whale, which helped launch his career as a young actor.

Yes, the characters can be mildly insufferable to spend time with, but the crisp writing keeps us engaged, and Eisenberg’s screenplay does reach some deeper truths about the desire for human connection. The dynamic between Evelyn and Kyle in particular, which stems from a well-meaning desire to reconnect with her own son, is a tricky one that Eisenberg handles quite deftly, even as Evelyn starts to overstep some boundaries.

While it could be said that When You Finish Saving the World offers pretty much exactly what you expect as a Sundance dramedy being put out by A24, it’s a confident and easily enjoyable debut film from Eisenberg, that doesn’t overstay its welcome at a well-paced 88 minutes. The performances by Moore and Wolfhard are also solid, as they believably bring these very specific personalities to life.

When You Finish Saving the World opens in limited release on January 27th at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. It’s being distributed in Canada by Sphere Films.

Cast members Finn Wolfhard and Billy Bryk will be joining for two in-person Q&As at the 3:45 pm and 6:30 pm screenings on Friday, January 27th at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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