It’s worth taking note when an actor who has turned in many strong performances steps behind the camera for the first time. In all likelihood, their vision will be influenced by the directors they have worked with, and the product they create may also look very little like the types of films they have starred in over the course of their acting career. Jesse Eisenberg has played a range of roles since appearing in his first film, Roger Dodger, two decades ago, and his feature directorial debut, When You Finish Saving the World, draws heavily on the offbeat humor of many of his best-known projects.
Evelyn (Julianne Moore) devotes herself entirely to her job working at a shelter, coming home to find a supportive husband (Jay O. Sanders) and a teenage son, Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard), who couldn’t be any less interested in spending time with her. Ziggy has gained a following on a social media site where people around the world watch him play music and show their enthusiasm with up-votes and credits. He begins to question the purpose of his quest for fame when he falls for his politically active classmate, Lila (Alisha Boe), while Evelyn sees a surrogate for Ziggy who actually seems to welcome her guidance, Kyle (Billy Bryk), a new arrival with his mother to the shelter.
This film is very much about two people who used to have a close bond who are looking for some form of connection with others now that they have drifted apart. Evelyn carries herself in a superior way, speaking in a distant and almost condescending manner, not nearly as aware of the interests of people around her, both in her family and her workplace, as she should be. Ziggy is unapologetically selfish, interested in self-promotion even when he is in a space that is explicitly about letting others be heard, and he is only motivated to consider changing his attitude by a crush.
It’s easy to identify this as a film that one might expect Eisenberg to make. That first film, Roger Dodger, was all about the way that adults and teenagers can find common ground in an unexpected manner. The Squid and the Whale showcased a family that was falling apart due to a tense separation between parents, and while Evelyn is very much still married here, there is clearly space that has been created which hasn’t made her house feel like the home she needs it to be. The lack of self-awareness that Ziggy possesses is also reminiscent of numerous Eisenberg characters, including his take on Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network.
In the same way that other actors-turned-filmmakers like Greta Gerwig seem like they could have been the perfect fits to play the roles they wrote a decade earlier, Eisenberg has found a fantastic surrogate in Wolfhard, who is best known for his starring role on Stranger Things. Here, he is entertaining and blissfully overconfident, but also grounded by a real musical talent and an occasional ability to truly hear what other people are saying. This is not Moore’s most spectacular performance, but the quality of her work is so high that she still functions at an impressive level as she works to unpack the walled-off Evelyn, who also has trouble understanding how others see themselves when it doesn’t align with her worldview.
In addition to When You Finish Saving the World being Eisenberg’s directorial debut, this is his first outing as screenwriter, based on his 2020 Audible drama of the same name. His script is full of humor and wit, and its political commentary works well as performative activism meets youthful exuberance in Ziggy’s quest for growth. The smartest character in the movie is Lila, played wonderfully by Boe, who is astute enough to admit how much she doesn’t know yet determined to strive to do better, and it’s refreshing to see a female supporting character written so richly in a film centered on a male gaze. Watching Evelyn and Ziggy draft apart and then slowly back towards each other is an enjoyable and endearing journey, even if it never quite reaches an emphatic resolution.
When You Finish Saving the World makes its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival and will be released at a later date by A24.