When You Finish Saving the World (Sundance) Review

Last Updated on January 25, 2022

when you finish saving the world Sundance review

PLOT: A worker at a domestic violence shelter (Julianne Moore) has trouble relating to her internet-influencer musician son, Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard) and seeks out a surrogate son to mentor.

REVIEW: When You Finish Saving the World marks the directorial debut of Jesse Eisenberg, and it’s a fitting first film given that it shares some uncanny similarities with the movie that put him on the map, The Squid and the Whale. Like that film, this is about the generation gap between a parent and their child, with the pretentious parent feeling somehow that their offspring doesn’t measure up. The relationship between a parent and child can be complicated. While we’ve seen plenty of films where children seek out surrogate parents, but we rarely get a movie from the perspective of a mother who seems to want to trade her son in for someone she has more in common with (probably because it’s such a toxic notion).

Julianne Moore’s Evelyn Katz is often unlikable, although I’m not sure Eisenberg meant for her to come off as harshly as she does here. A dedicated worker at a domestic violence shelter, she’s pretty insensitive in how she treats her son, Finn Wolfhard’s Ziggy. While he’s flaky and self-absorbed, he’s also a kid and any time he reaches out to her; she tends to respond passive-aggressively. She seems to think his internet following is a big joke even if, in this day and age, his reach could eventually grow in ways she’d never be able to understand.

Eisenberg’s movie is unique because both Evelyn and Ziggy are pretty selfish, or at least self-absorbed people and this is acknowledged. Usually, one of them would be seen as the “good one”. He wants to make money and only takes an interest in politics and activism to get close to the pretty girl he likes at school, much to his mother’s disgust. Yet, Wolfhard, who has a very likeable quality, still makes Ziggy come off as harmless and well-intentioned (he seems primed to break out beyond Stranger Things between this and Ghostbusters: Afterlife). In another actor’s hands, he would have been insufferable.

The movie becomes more troubling when it examines Evelyn’s relationship with the son of one of the women she’s helping at the shelter, Billy Bryk’s Kyle. She takes this kid, who’s in the middle of a very stressful situation, and tries to remake him in the image of what she wants her son to be, a toxic, dangerous fact the movie perhaps treats a little too lightly. Eisenberg adopts a seriocomic tone, very much in the mould of Noah Baumbach, which is interesting as there’s another version of this movie that could have been made as a hardcore drama.

Due to be released by A24, many will likely dismiss this as a lightweight indie, but to me, there’s something provocative about it. Eisenberg is poking fun at wokeness to some degree, with Moore’s “woke” counsellor doing damage, even if unintentionally, to both to her son and the family she’s supposed to be helping by her unshakable belief that she knows what’s right for them – even if it’s clear she doesn’t. Wolfhard’s Ziggy also reinvents himself as “woke” (although the word is never used) but only does so to get the girl that he likes and potentially make money, with being political just another commodity to exploit. Meanwhile, both Ziggy and Evelyn totally ignore Jay O. Sanders, as their well-meaning father and husband, who acknowledges both are self-absorbed but shrugs it off. He quietly steals a couple of scenes simply by retreating further and further into the background.

In the end, When You Finish Saving the World is a solid debut for Eisenberg, and while it’s probably too small-scale to make an impact theatrically these days, it should get some attention if released via streaming. It’s an entertaining indie flick making its Sundance debut that has something to say in its own non-pretentious way.

when you finish saving the world Sundance review

About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.