Jesse Eisenberg debuts a shockingly assured vision at Sundance 2022
I appreciate Jesse Eisenberg as an actor. I know his dry awkwardness may not be for everyone, but I find it comes from a genuine place and his choice of projects over the years has only endeared him as someone not afraid to push his boundaries with his turns in less commercial fare like The Art of Self Defense and Vivarium. When I saw his feature length directorial debut When You Finish Saving the World was playing opening night on the Sundance schedule and starring Finn Wolfhard and Julianne Moore, needless to say that was an easy choice. The fact that A24 almost immediately picked it up only sweetened the deal as I sat down to watch my first virtual viewing of the fest.
Based on Eisenberg’s audiobook, the film follows Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard), your stereotypical high schooler, who spends his days in front of his PC performing his bubble gum folk rock on a twitch-like streaming service, and his neurotic suburban liberal mother, Evelyn (Julianne Moore). To put it nicely both are oblivious self absorbed narcissists, but only one is making a real difference by founding a shelter for domestic violence victims, while the other talks incessantly about his 20,000 followers for anyone who would listen. When Ziggy falls for Lila (Alisha Boe) a classmate, who is also a woman of color, and into politics, we begin to realize how out of touch he is when he attempts to be more “Woke” to win her favor. The film has the mother and son drifting apart as they fail to find what they need in each other, and venture elsewhere for that missing piece of their relationship.
Watching the film with its less than vague autobiographical subtext, it’s painful at times how self aware Eisenberg is here and how he freely explores his artistic and social shortcomings through Ziggy. It’s cringeworthy as it is insightful, as Ziggy prattles on about his “commercially viable” ventures tone deaf to those around him. His mother, who’s all but given up on her son, has taken to quasi “adopting”, an underprivileged classmate of Ziggy’s, who is staying in the shelter with his mother. As the two navigate their own minefields of social interactions and best intentions, they eventually make their way back to one another. The taut script is a timely snapshot of the nuclear family, and in less than 90s minutes Finn and Moore do the sheer unimaginable, by giving us a way in to care about these less than likable characters.
When You Finish Saving the World is reminiscent of Ladybird, offering up the kind of candid coming of age train wreck that charming as it is painful to watch. Filled with some truly remarkable performances, Eisenberg debuts a shockingly assured vision that is as concise as it is sincere in its comedic takedown of its protagonists and in turn himself. I have a feeling he’s read more than a few posts about his turn as Lex Luthor. I was completely floored by World and it was a shockingly strong start to my Sundance experience, giving me another filmmaker to keep an eye out for going forward. Luckily you won’t have long to wait to check this film out since it already has distribution from A24.