For the first time, I am attending the Sundance Film Festival virtually… from my couch. I miss the communal experience of seeing a film with an audience and excitedly talking about our reactions to the film. I also miss the in-person filmmaker Q&As following each screening. However, Sundance has done an impressive job making the festival as interactive as possible, both with audience members and virtual discussions with filmmakers.
My first screening of the Festival is Jesse Eisenberg’s writer/directorial debut WHEN YOU FINISH SAVING THE WORLD, an adaptation of his Audible audio drama that premiered in 2020. Eisenberg is a Sundance darling, starring in many films that have premiered at the Festival, including THE SQUID AND THE WHALE and THE END OF THE TOUR. But now it’s his turn to be behind the camera, an almost inevitable destination for an artist as intelligent and observant about the human experience as he is.
WHEN YOU FINISH SAVING THE WORLD is basically the clash of the narcissists. Ziggy is a teenage musician who is not afraid to tell you how about his 20,000 followers and “validated” status on a Tik Tok-esque social media platform. The biggest moments of conflict in his life, which he writes cringey songs about, include his crush not noticing him and his friends going to a different high school after junior high. His greatest act of service is using the money he has garnered from “fans” on the app to get better equipment, which will enable him to translate his songs into even more languages! How generous. But really, it’s clear that with all of his followers, the one he really wants to respect and pay attention to his work is his mom Evelyn (Julianne Moore).
Evelyn isn’t much better than her son, despite the fact that she runs a women’s shelter. Seriously, don’t let that fool you, she is a sanctimonious “Karen” who complains about the noise of employee birthday parties and forgot to attend her husband’s lifetime achievement award because she was too caught up in her own life. Evelyn thinks her son’s songs are silly, and barely gives them the time of day. Instead, she hopes he would spend time helping her at the shelter. After all, she took him to several protests when he was younger. What went wrong?
When Evelyn and Ziggy find idealistic stand-ins that fill the role they hoped to find in each other, tensions mount. But will these new substitutes be enough?
Although Eisenberg does not appear in the film, it is clear that his experience in front of the camera created an environment for Moore and Wolfhard to showcase their talent. His clever, acerbic script is an actor’s dream, featuring meaty scenes that vacillate between cringey “wokeness” and gnarly fights. The mother-son relationship is the backbone of this film so it is no wonder Eisenberg chose such heavy hitters to bring this rocky dynamic to life. In a Q&A following the screening, Moore said it “didn’t take any work at all” to build her relationship with Wolfhard, who she calls a “great partner.” Wolfhard followed that up by calling Moore, “one of the greatest living actors.” That trust and mutual adoration is clear in their fantastic on-screen chemistry
The main element that keeps this film from fully coming together, however, is a lack of connection between the characters and audience. The problem isn’t that the leads are insufferable and unlikable; many of my favorite films, particularly YOUNG ADULT, lean into that element. It is just that there always felt like a barrier between the characters and audience that made it difficult for me to fully care about what happens to them.
Without getting into spoilers, I also didn’t buy into the characters’ quick resolution at the end of the film, especially for two people who were seemingly far apart in their ideals and values. The film is a tight 90 minutes, and while I don’t think it should have been any longer than that, I can understand how a five hour Audible series would make for a cleaner ending and listeners to be more invested in the characters.
WHEN YOU FINISH SAVING THE WORLD is not bad, it’s just not terribly memorable, despite strong performances from Moore and Wolfhard. I will be surprised if it makes many waves after its Sundance premiere. Still, I am excited to see the projects in Eisenberg’s future because I think he is an artist with a distinct and astute voice, which can be hard to come by these days.
My Review: C+
**Photos in this post are courtesy of the Sundance Institute**