Jesse Eisenberg steps behind the camera to bring his podcast to the big screen.

Jesse Eisenberg’s directorial debut, When You Finish Saving the World, would’ve felt right at home with the indie cinema of the mid-1990s and even up through the 2000s. It’s a small-scale story about a family, a mother and son, who have drifted so far apart in their relationship that it’s fair to wonder if they have a way to get back to each other. It’s also fair to question whether that’s something the characters even want at this point in their lives. When You Finish Saving the World is modest in its ambitions, leading to an end product that has its charms but feels somewhat weightless.

Adapted from an Audible podcast which Eisenberg wrote and starred in, the story focuses on Evelyn (Julianne Moore) and her teenage son Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard, who also played this role on the podcast). Ziggy is a budding singer-songwriter who has found a bit of success live-streaming his bedroom performances to his online fanbase. Evelyn runs a shelter for survivors of domestic abuse. When they’re in their own worlds, they’re both successful. But when they overlap, they’re reduced to impotent squabbling.

I think “impotent” is the word that best describes the movie overall. Moore and Wolfhard have the mother-son dynamic down pat, but both characters and performances are stunted by Eisenberg’s script. The writing is at its sharpest when Ziggy and Evelyn are floundering, but doesn’t find a higher gear as the story progresses.

The bulk of the film’s runtime revolves around Ziggy’s repeated failed attempts to impress classmate Lila (Alisha Boe) and Evelyn’s attempts to take Kyle (Billy Bryk), the teenage son of one of the women staying at the shelter, under her wing. Lila is smart and interested in politics and not at all impressed by Ziggy’s music or live-streaming success and obsessive focus on money. Kyle is a resourceful and practical young man who appears, to Evelyn’s eye, to have the direction that Ziggy lacks. But, while Ziggy has his head in the sky, Kyle’s feet are firmly planted in the real world. That leaves Evelyn caught in the interesting position of wishing her son could be more grounded like Kyle, while also being frustrated that Kyle lacks Ziggy’s imagination. Even worse for Evelyn, her attempts to offer guidance to both boys backfire.

The biggest problem for the film, and one that proves insurmountable in the end, is that Ziggy and Evelyn are dull characters. They offer no surprises or noteworthy insights, and the performances from Wolfhard and Moore plateau early and feel static all the way through. That roadblock makes it hard to fully invest in Ziggy, Evelyn, and the movie itself.

In the end, When You Finish Saving the World proves to be frustrating above all else. I feel like I could see all of the pieces Eisenberg has in play and how he wants to fit them together, but I could see the final picture well before those pieces were all in place, which sapped the film of any real momentum. Eisenberg proves himself to be a capable filmmaker, finding moments for his actors to shine, but this is the exact type of movie you’d expect to see when you hear the phrase “a Jesse Eisenberg-directed movie.”

When You Finish Saving the World is currently playing in theaters.

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