(this article closes our 2022 coverage of the 2022 Sundance Festival) This has been a very good year for films at the Sundance Film Festival for works by actors or actresses who have changed my opinion on their abilities. With the smart satire “When You’re Finished Saving the World,” actor Jesse Eisenberg has found his true calling, as writer and director.
The film’s excellent title attests to Eisenberg’s pointed wit that’s held within his screenplay and his skewering of the self-righteous “Look at me!” America that we live in today.
Eisenberg is an actor who has always felt one-note. While he has been very good (Dylan Kidd’s “Roger Dodger,” Woody Allen’s “To Rome with Love,” Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale,” David Fincher’s “The Social Network”), the actor’s performances are usually too mannered (every other film he is in). Behind the camera there’s a new focus as he proves with his debut feature.
Set in a small-town, but brimming with a New York vibe, Mother Evelyn (Julianne Moore) and her son Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard) are pure narcissists who can’t seem to properly deal with the world nor one another.
Ziggy is a user on a streaming platform where he performs his solemn songs. He has a large fan base and perceives himself a celebrity, constantly reminding everyone of his huge following. As with so many online performers, he feels more important than he probably really is.
Evelyn is a social worker at a battered women’s shelter who (like many of the self-important overly woke crowd today) is constantly damning her son for not getting more into the social issues affecting the country, to which she considers herself a major player. And, like so many armchair social justice warriors she doesn’t do much more than loudly talk about it.
With their combined self-importance preventing them from having a healthy relationship, mother and son argue too often, but it is Evelyn who is ruthless in the ways she attacks Ziggy. She has zero patience and is aggressive in her comebacks and attacks, while Ziggy tries to find himself as a teenager, although Evelyn is intensely vain, and it is shaping her son’s personality.
The way she speaks so sanctimoniously about herself while damning every real emotion from her son recalls the vicious trend of privileged white women who are continuously caught on camera berating innocent people minding their own business. While it is hinted that they once had a good relationship, Evelyn’s superior attitude towards Ziggy is very “I know it all. You fall in line.” There is no give and take.
Almost obsessively, the two seek outsiders to latch onto in the hope of real connection. For Evelyn it is the teenage son of a woman who has come to the shelter where she works, Angie (Eleonore Hendricks) and her son Kyle (Billy Bryk).
It is in this arc where Julianne Moore really sells her character’s self-righteousness. Her anger towards her own son fuels her obsession to get closer to young Kyle, even offering to guide him and help him get into a good school. Ziggy expressed interest in wanting to fit in more at his own high school, but his mom ignored it. With Kyle, Evelyn shows a maternal impulse (obsessive as it is) that she cannot share with her own son.
Moore’s performance is determined and without restraint. Her Evelyn tries desperately to be a part of the world happening now but is too self-absorbed to be truthful to herself or her son. The actress is pure commitment and flawlessly portrays a person we just cannot like, as her compulsion towards the Kyle gets worse, slipping into jealousy when she sees his bonding with another woman at the shelter.
Moore has not had such an intensely interesting role since her Oscar-winning part in 2014’s “Still Alice.” Always good and completely committed to every tick and mannerism without drawing attention to her craft, this performance is another reminder of the actress’s supreme talents.
While mom is obsessing with Kyle, Ziggy finds solace and a new view of the world in fellow student Lila (Amish Boe), a sweet and politically active young woman who is smarter than her years.
The parallels in these two different relationships are funny, sad, and telling. For Ziggy, there is sincerity in his music but not his life. Lila brings out an honesty in his thinking that he doesn’t get from his mother; his world view (and perhaps his self-worth) becoming clearer.
Finn Wolfhard is very good at portraying Ziggy’s teen angst. It is difficult for modern films to get to the heart of being a teenager, let alone one who is getting lost in finding his true voice. The actor shows great skill in embodying every uncomfortable step in the life of this socially inept young man.
For Evelyn, she sees in Kyle the son she desperately wants Ziggy to be but hasn’t the self-reflection to see that if she put the effort afforded to Kyle towards her own blood, perhaps things would be easier and happier at home.
Satire is not always subtle and where our country is today, this is no time to be modest. Eisenberg’s screenplay gives great insight into the types of people represented by Evelyn and Ziggy. These are obvious, self-satisfying, absurdists who think they are doing good in the world, when all they really want is acknowledgement of their actions.
There is a confidence in the writing and Eisenberg shows a steady hand in working with his actors, taking a realistic approach to a subject that could too easily slip into over-the-top parody.
As a filmmaker, Eisenberg’s work (fueled by cinematographer Benjamin Loeb’s lived-in seventies style) echoes the naturalism of director Hal Ashby. Ashby’s work took on the upside-down America he lived in but chose to never poke too broad of fun at his characters, showing everyone as real people with flaws on full display. His films made life on the screen relatable to the works around us. Jesse Eisenberg achieves such a goal with this film.
Self-aggrandizing egomaniacs. Click-obsessed social media users with no sense of self. A fractured mother/son dynamic. The fetishistic need to be recognized for our actions. Eisenberg takes on a lot with his two main characters and he succeeds.
“When You’re Done Saving the World” is an involving and well-written film full of naturalistic humor and sharp socio-political commentary, with this freshman effort, Jesse Eisenberg has proven himself the astute filmmaker for these times.