Sundance Review: In Jesse Eisenberg’s When You Finish Saving the World, Everyone Loses

Eisenberg's first outing behind the camera yields two strong performances but lacks a memorable story

When You Finish Saving the World

This review is part of our coverage of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

The Pitch: What happens when tensions between an equally oblivious mother and son (Julianne Moore and Finn Wolfhard, respectively) finally boil over? In Jesse Eisenberg’s directorial debut, the answer is, unfortunately, sort of nothing.

There’s something to be said for slice-of-life films like this one, adapted from Eisenberg’s 2020 audio drama of the same name and co-produced by Emma Stone and husband Dave McCary. The film raises plenty of interesting questions, particularly around the ideas of altruism, actual moral goodness in a world perpetually concerned with what looks good, and the tried and true theme of generational divide. The simmering story only runs 88 minutes (a dream!), but, throughout that runtime, When You Finish Saving the World never quite achieves the liftoff it craves.

Ziggy, Hold the Stardust: Wolfhard (who could very well become the Stranger Things kid who goes the distance) turns in a grounded and believable performance as Ziggy, a musician who has found relative internet fame on Hi-Hat, the movie’s stand-in for TikTok. Ziggy is first presented as a self-absorbed teen in stark contrast to his mother, Evelyn (Moore), who does the “important work” of running a women’s shelter.

The movie feels like it’s aiming for Lady Bird territory, and Ziggy lands like a combination of that titular character and Timothee Chalamet’s dirtbag love interest, Kyle Scheible — and pleasantly so. Wolfhard is incredibly believable, using sparse dialogue to reveal a conflicted and confused inner world.

As the story progresses, it’s easier to be somewhat sympathetic to Ziggy. One of the film’s stronger points is its depiction of Gen-Z, young people as consumed with social justice as they are with being “verified and starred,” and Ziggy is the kid caught in the crosshairs.


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