Sundance 2022: Jesse Eisenberg's 'When You Finish Saving the World'
by Alex Billington
January 22, 2022
Once you finish saving the world, don't forget about your family either. American actor Jesse Eisenberg is one of the next actors to try their hand at filmmaking. His feature directorial debut is a film called When You Finish Saving the World, which premiered on Opening Night at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. It's both written and directed by Eisenberg, but he doesn't appear in it. He's made a film that seems to be a personal story inspired by his own experiences growing up (and falling for a smart girl) about the disconnect among a dysfunctional American family. The festival introduction at the beginning of the screening included a mention the film The Squid and the Whale, Noah Baumbach's 2005 drama that also played at Sundance. It's apparent that Eisenberg loves this film as much as everyone else because When You Finish Saving the World is very much the same style, the same kind of story about a family, and the same kind of film overall.
Eisenberg's When You Finish Saving the World is a sort of retro indie feature shot on grainy 16mm with low key cinematography, focusing on the characters not on style. Julianne Moore co-stars as Evelyn, the mom of a family including Finn Wolfhard as her son Ziggy, and Jay O. Sanders as her husband Roger. The story primarily focuses on Ziggy, who is internet famous with 20,000 followers on a livestream site where he writes and performs new music. But in real life, no one really cares about him. His mom finds him dull, and prefers to spend her time with her employees, eventually getting obsessed with a perfect-looking, perfect-sounding pretty boy named Kyle, played by Billy Bryk. He's also a student at Ziggy's school, and she starts to treat him like the son-she-wishes-she-had. All the while, Ziggy makes an utter fool of himself falling head over heels for a precocious political activist named Lila, played by Alisha Boe, who also goes to his school.
One of the best things about the film is how it is a succinct and honest criticism of internet fame and social media. While the music he creates is important to Ziggy, ultimately in the real world the followers he has, the money he makes from these followers, and the attention they (seem to) give him is irrelevant. It doesn't really matter, we know that, but this film offers a potent reminder of that truth. In the real world ("IRL"), interacting with people at school and at home, the number of followers you have means nothing when you can't even have a real conversation. With his family it's just yelling and disagreeing and walking away, and ultimately this is a bigger problem that needs to be addressed. Eisenberg carefully and skillfully handles this concern by taking both Ziggy and Evenlyn on journeys to grow and learn. Their growth is of understanding, which is not something that comes easily, and shame and failure is something they both need to learn from.
Going beyond just internet fame, Eisenberg also works in a clever bit about how political activism is also so empty for many people, often just to sound "cool" or even something to make money from. But authenticity matters in real life, most can tell you're full of shit, and that will sting. The film is a bit shaggy but engaging overall with heaps of very awkward moments and dry humor and conversations about how shallow people can be. So yes, I enjoyed it quite a bit. Both Julianne Moore and Finn Wolfhard are exceptional, of course Eisenberg knows how to get the best out of actors. It is a thoughtful of-the-times-we're-in film with clever ideas in the script that don't shy away from complicated truths about family. How are you with your family? A good film can get you to think more about this. Maybe it's time we try to put some effort into connecting with and interacting with those who love us, rather than fighting with – or fawning over – strangers online.
Alex's Sundance 2022 Rating: 7.5 out of 10
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