Little day-to-day triumphs often mean more in the long run than any big win. Sure, big wins are more noticeable, but the victories which come from plugging away, day after day, the ones which bring comfort when the struggles come, and they do come, sometimes too frequently, those are the ones which resonate. Just as easily as when we earn a win, something can come along and take it all away. What we do, in the face of all that, matters. This is the heart of the absolutely endearing When Jeff Tried to Save the World from co-writers Rachel Borgo and Kendall Goldberg, a dramedy featuring a young man’s quest to preserve what he loves despite demoralizing odds.
Overwhelmed by the complexities of the world, perpetually anxious Jeff (Jon Heder) delights in the comforting routine that being a manager at the bowling alley Winky’s World offers. First one in and last one out, Jeff finds contentment in helping others take some time out of their hectic lives to enjoy the simplicity of bowling. When Jeff’s boss, Sheila (Candi Milo), informs him that building owner, and soon-to-be ex-husband, Carl (Jim O’Heir) is selling the building, Jeff thinks that nothing could make him feel worse. That is, until his sister Lindy (Anna Konkle) and her roommate Samantha (Maya Erskine) arrive to stay with him for an unannounced visit. Terrified that his family will find out he lied about working for an IT firm and unnerved by what the loss of Winky’s means, Jeff steps out of his comfort zone on a quest that’ll either win the day or see him tilting at windmills.
Originally a short film Borgo and Goldberg collaborated on in 2017, Jeff certainly doesn’t feel like an extension of a smaller idea. Rather, the whole of it feels organically designed as a full-length piece, one which tells an atypical superhero story where the hero is just some dude trying to do right despite crippling social anxiety and the villain is another dude making the best of a bad situation. This isn’t a battle of archetypes but is an exploration of self where the real villain is time. Who are we if not the accumulation of moments created by choices? Jeff seems to explore this notion from beginning to end. What person hasn’t struggled with answering a phone, fumbled at establishing a connection with a stranger, or found that simply shutting out the world was easier than confronting it? Who hasn’t looked back on a life lived and felt regret for decisions which seemed too difficult or required too much daring to correct or adjust? By keeping the stakes within Jeff relatively low, characters become the focus, which is where Jeff draws its power, making Jeff standout from the pack.
There’s a simple yet pervasive metaphor which the script and direction (Goldberg pulling double-duty) focus on throughout Jeff: in order to win, you have to play. Considering that the film opens on Jeff as he playing an arcade game (which we later discover he designed) and earning a high score and closes on an image on the same machine asking “Continue?”, the leaning on game play as subtext for life powerfully underscores the lead: a man whose social anxiety caused him to leave computer engineering and who now finds simple pleasure in managing a bowling alley. Games are easy: you fail, you try again and again until you win the level, beat the score, defeat the challenge. The real world, however, has only one play and the pressure to make it perfect can overwhelm. The fact that Jeff finds safety within his routine at Winky’s is neither sad nor disconcerting. He’s the master of his domain, yet it’s his unwillingness to advance his mastery past managerial duties, to put his innate talent for engineering and play to work for him which keep him locked in a self-imposed cage. A combination of narrative design and character work by Heder reveal the complexities inherent in Jeff’s psyche, making him less of a retail loser and more of a complex individual who’s reluctant to let anyone in out of shame.
The larger theme of gaming doesn’t just extend into the narrative, but into the film as a whole. Goldberg continually frames Jeff as a hero: stock-shouldered as he slow-motion walks through Winky’s, placed standing proudly behind the counter watching bowlers as a king overseeing his kingdom, or given a hero’s moment as he pushes past his own telephone anxiety to call every bowler in his registration list. These are the simple actions of an average worker, yet Goldberg positions Jeff as a confident leader, a watcher on the wall ready to defend and fight. In contrast, at home, Goldberg positions Jeff as less capable and, in any interaction with his sister or Samantha, far less extroverted. However, it’s through gaming that he and Samantha begin to chat and Jeff starts to open up. No longer engaged in a solo game, Jeff’s able to see what’s around him and the chemistry between Heder and Erskine fills every scene with a cool, but fun energy. Additionally, the set design and cinematography feel designed to exude a general epicness to elevate the mundane into something more. As Jeff moves across the bowling alley floor, the light shines from behind him as though projecting from angels. In another scene, the radiant glow from arcade machines and neon signs shoots bursts of color in all directions as if they’re propelling him across the room. Even Hannah Parrott’s score possesses tale-tell notes of 8-bit gaming, beeping and booping along as Jeff attempts to out-maneuver his fate.
Whatever you do, don’t discount When Jeff Tried to Save the World. Goldberg’s direction, the cinematography, and the sound design channel nostalgia by capturing the feel of gaming – electric or otherwise – and how the same lessons we learn from any game can assist us in life. The talent in the cast – Heder, O’Heir, Erskine, Steve Berg, Brendan Meyer, and Candi Milo – aid in elevating the perception of the stakes by offering performances focused on the humanity of their characters. Sure, Jeff is a silly film, but its heart is so full and genuine that even the minor romantic subplot will have you air punching with joy. More than anything, When Jeff Tried to Save the World reminds us that it’s not whether you win or lose that matters, but that you get in the game.
Currently available to purchase or rent from most major streaming outlets. For more information, head to the When Jeff Tried to Save the World website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.