Over the course of his career Oscar-nominated actor Jesse Eisenberg has played many roles. He’s been a nebbish hero (Zombieland), a sociopath (The Social Network), a stoner badass (American Ultra), and the greatest criminal mind of the DCEU (Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice). With his debut at Sundance Film Festival 2022, Eisenberg takes on a new role, that of feature film director, with the feature-length adaptation of his Audible Original story When You Finish Saving the World. The audiobook featured Eisenberg, Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart), and Finn Wolfhard (It: Chapter One) portraying three members of a family as they attempt to explore who they are in an effort to understand each other. The story is presented via a time-shift structure so that each one is engaging with the other from a different moment in their lives. In the feature-length version of When You Finish Saving the World, there is no time-shift and the story centers primarily Ziggy (Wolfhard returning in the same role) and Evelyn (Julianne Moore playing Ziggy’s mother). The film remains a story of connection, of yearning to overcome the divides that form naturally among the people you love. Bittersweet in every sense, Eisenberg’s feature directorial debut strides upon the well-worn path of familial conflict tropes only to conclude on a resonant frequency that’ll leave you vibrating in its wake.
The Katz Family are a deeply talented bunch: Mother Evelyn (Moore) runs a domestic abuse shelter, fighting each day against the injustices of a patriarchal system; father Roger (Jay O. Sanders) works in education, spending each day pushing to improve the minds of students in academia; and high school-aged son Ziggy (Wolfhard) performs new music for his fans on a weekly livestream. They each co-exist in their home, seeking to excel in their fields, yet are disconnected from how each one functions in the world. Confronted with their own respective challenges, Evelyn and Ziggy seek understanding via surrogates, hoping to get what they want from another as they feel they can’t get it at home.
The central characters are difficult to connect with, not because their performances don’t hold your attention, but because Eisenberg designed them to be…not horrible, per se…but a little too high on their own supply. Evelyn’s entire personality is built on helping others to the point of seeking to do so against their will, crossing the line from kind enthusiasm and into harmful altruism where it’s more about what it does for Evelyn than for others. Then there’s Ziggy, who loves making music, but whose motives are difficult to discern as to whether he loves the art of creation or the rush of their affection and status that comes with it without any awareness of how fleeting it is. These two make up the bulk of the narrative, with all others seemingly inactive unless the other two possess a need or a desire for them. This isn’t to imply that the other characters portrayed by Sanders, Billy Bryk, Alisha Boe, and Eleonore Hendricks aren’t relevant to the story (they’re each critical in a variety of ways), it’s that the film is showing you a myopic view, specifically that of Evelyn or Ziggy, requiring that the others only seem to come alive in their presence and nowhere else. It’s a brilliant maneuver by Eisenberg, one which may seem shallow to some, but it plays into the notion of their self-absorbed nature, of their unaware narcissism, which serves as the foundation for their respective disconnection.
What truly astounds in Eisenberg’s approach are the little things which imply a desperate need for connection against their individual rebellions against each other. Our introduction to the film is Ziggy playing a song and engaging with his audience. Evelyn plays classical music every time she drives her car. Music is something clearly she or she and Roger both are invested in as they discuss that Ziggy used to have a plastic guitar as a child. Then there’s the fact that his name is Ziggy, a clear reference to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust. Music is often the link between scenes, serving as the outro and intro to a moment. Music is the connection between Evelyn and Ziggy, the language they share, even if their current vested interests are vastly different. She cares not at all for the music Ziggy creates, absent any interest in his work, though likely because he constantly speaks of its value as a commodity financially and socially versus from an artistic perspective. Likewise, Ziggy understands the value of what his mother does, but, unless he can be compensated in some way, he’s not interested in participating. Theirs is a rift which could easily be mended if only they made different choices. Instead, they seek connection elsewhere to their own detriment. Even the title seems like a passive aggressive jab that either Evelyn or Ziggy would say in their bid to keep control of their social standing as a protective mechanism in the face of the chasm forming between them.
Their fallibility being prevalent makes them terrible protagonists in the sense that it’s difficult to root for them. Thanks to performances from Moore and Wolfhard (him especially), you’ll want to root for them to make different choices then ones they do. Eisenberg’s script does duck and weave around tropes of trust and betrayal, making the whole of When You Finish feel fresh, yet, through several clever set-ups, we’ll long for his characters to develop enough awareness to be better in the face of a self-serving choice. Each time they don’t, our hearts break for them a bit more at their missed connection. How one receives this film, I suspect, may be due to how the audience is in their own life. It’s not to say that the characters must always make the right choices, but they may really only resonate within the audience who knows people who make similar choices for similar reasons. Those who come from a healthy upbringing might find it strange for a child to be so disconnected from their parents and vice versa, but those dynamics exist. I, for one, know someone exactly like Evelyn, who will up-end the world in order to make a stranger’s life just a little bit easier, a bit brighter, in regular or hard times, yet struggles to make any kind of interpersonal connection with their children. Each time Evelyn found patience with Bryk’s Kyle that was absent with Ziggy, each time Ziggy failed to understand the difference between commerce and art, it felt like a dagger piercing my heart. It was as though Eisenberg knew an experience that felt profoundly singular. Despite this, I became overcome with persistent swelling of love and hope. Not for myself and my experiences, but for my eldest son. Ziggy past and present much reminded me so much of my son and Eisenberg’s script reminded me that perhaps there’s hope for the cycle to be broken, in fiction and in reality. We all start out ignorant and, in that time, are offered patience and grace. When You Finish almost seems to ask why we stop offering that as we get older, both to ourselves and others.
As a feature-length debut, When You Finish Saving the World is a strong calling card. It plays on a script level, but its true strength comes from the performances, direction, and editing which create the timing that brings such incredible harmony among discord. It all goes back to music as the tether between Evelyn and Ziggy and it permeates the entire film. One instrument isn’t enough to make “Starman” memorable, it’s the combination of instrumentation which is similarly presented within When You Finish as pauses, unspoken words, and what lies underneath what’s spoken, as well as what the cinematography and direction convey. Slowly, through small moments, Eisenberg deftly creates a story that, if you allow it to, will present itself as a story of longing between two people intrinsically linked, who somehow forgot to keep seeing each other as people rather than a means of commerce, social standing, or social change. I think because audiences are so trained to look for certain beats, and Eisenberg’s made enough films to know this, that his awareness of the tropes (and subversion of them) works both for and against the film. In this regard, audiences are either going to vibe along with the frequency or they’ll hit static and bounce out. As someone who knows the kinds of people Eisenberg centers his story on, his story broke my heart, and I was grateful for the experience.
Screening during the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.