When You Finish Saving the World is one of the most transparent semi-autobiographical films ever made yet it’s not set in the authors coming-of-age generation. Actor-turned-director Jesse Eisenberg modernizes this personal story and gives it back to the generation who will define the world that his own kid is about to grow up in.
In the first movie I?ve ever seen adapted from an Audible original, Eisenburg adapts the audio drama into a more condensed, duel character study. The film follows 17-year-old Ziggy Katz (Finn Wolfhard, who reprises his role from the audio drama) who finds himself pursuing his teenage interests, landing him in the awkward spot of having a niche viral stardom from live streaming his own original music. The only problem is that he hasn’t met any of them and the people in his real life don’t care about his 20,000 followers (A fact he frequently points out). Ziggy doesn’t care what the people around him think, least of all his mother. He pushes her concerns out of the way to try and focus on growing his music fandom. There is one girl Ziggy who wants his attention from and, unfortunately for him, it’s the most woke girl in class, Lila (Alisha Boe). His knowledge about the politics and rights issues she talks about is basically none but he also isn’t willing to give up the time he dedicates to his music to learn, so he tries to pretend to know what Lila’s talking about. Of course, Lila knows that he is clueless about what she and her friend discuss but Ziggy is blinded in his pursuit for her.
Between his pursuit of Lila and his efforts to chase fame, Ziggy develops a narcissistic lifestyle that starts to alienates his parents, especially his mother Evelyn (Julianne Moore). Evelyn works as the head of a home for women seeking refuge from unsafe domestic situations. Despite her direct work with people, she is often shown to struggle with connecting on a deeper level with her clients. That comes to a head when she is introduced to Kyle (Billy Bryk), another 17 year old kid with a heart of gold. Kyle’s mom is staying at the shelter and during their stay Evelyn notices how caring Kyle is. He helps his mom with everything and is even willing to address any practical need around him. Evelyn recognizes him as a kid with a heart of gold who is also smart and compassionate, a trait she can’t see in her own son or any of the people he hangs out with. So, when she sees Kyle, a smart and caring person, she believes she can put him on the path to great things. However, Evelyn begins to ignore Kyle’s feelings about her attempts to get him to university and it leads her down a narcissistic path that parallels Ziggy’s.
Jesse Eisenburg is one of few debut directors or directors in general who are bold enough to create characters that are so transparently narcissistic and, therefore, hard to love. These kinds of characters tend to alienate mainstream audiences but they certainly hold a lot of potential for entertaining and cinematic scenes. These kinds of characters can work in a story and style meant for them, one that engages and entertains the audience and Eisenburg does a lot towards that end. His cinematography matches the tone of this film perfectly with a classic and aesthetically pleasing style that invokes a sense of nostalgia fit for this retro-style, coming of age film. Stills from this movie feel like the film photos you’d see on a young person’s Instagram feed and that fits the young energy of the film well. Props to cinematographer Benjamin Loeb (After Yang) who has continually tackled projects including this one through a dynamic approach to either colour and camera movement.
The technical prowess and film form choices are continually impressive throughout the film as the editing brilliantly highlights the visual humor communicated through the props or set design. The film makes the most of its indie sensibilities, highlighting simple cuts for comedy. One scene features an epic slow long zoom out from Evelyn casually driving her car only to cut to her racing into a parking spot and squealing to stop which reveals her hilariously undersized Smart Car. As we follow Ziggy and Evelyn, we see how their narcissistic tendencies are put on display through simple camera work that allow us to focus on the characters’ frequent uncomfortable actions and words. Some of those words do not feel natural to the generation they’re portraying, in particular Ziggy?s use of the F-word is not only a bit startling for someone who couldn?t imagine swearing at their parents at 17 but also feels very ‘written’. They don’t feel like their coming from the mouth of a present day teenager. You can imagine Eisenburg guiding Wolfhard to create this character that largely mimics himself because as admitted by Eisenburg this is a personal story and he clearly has himself in mind when writing and directing Ziggy. The voices he develops for his younger characters also feel out of touch for a member of Generation Z but I won’t expect perfection from someone who’s 39 himself.
The direction Eisenburg takes in writing and acting may be the same kind that seemed alienating in The Squid and The Whale, a film Eisenburg starred in. The bold actions and decisions the characters in When You Finish Saving the World clearly feel like they were plucked from the experience Eisenburg had on The Squid and the Whale. Both of these films contain scenes of very personal coming-of-age sexual discovery that cross the line from vulnerable characterization to bad taste. Some actions shouldn?t be as explicit as they are in a coming-of-age film like When You Finish Saving the World but that is up to the viewer. Ziggy and Evelyn have a bluntness to their verbal attacks on one another that lands in the grey zone of attempting to be naturalistic while still containing elements of the fanciful dialogue you’d expect from an Aaron Sorkin script (Eisenburg led The Social Network that was written by film Sorkin).
The performances from Wolfhard and Moore are pitch perfect to Eisenburg?s vision. He should be singing their praises whenever their brought up in conversation from now on. Julianne Moore in particular plays this distancing and ultra-intellectual mother so well and executes both the awkward and emotional moments to perfection. Wolfhard is the victim of some of the more fanciful moments of dialogue that don?t fit with the realistic modern teenager Eisenberg tries to create but still he does a wonderful job executing the honest ignorance and cringe of this arrogant but wishful young man. When you Finish Saving the World is not for everyone, but if you can put up with some selfish characters and the purposeful cringe of adolescents then this might be the teenage fable for you.
When You Finish Saving the World is in theatres now.