Jesse Eisenberg’s When You Finish Saving the World is a shallow drama that lacks true satirical bite: Sundance Film Festival Review

There are flashes of an interesting film present within Jesse Eisenberg‘s directorial debut When You Finish Saving the World, it’s just a shame that the satirical flourishes and occasional nuances teased throughout aren’t devoted enough to to be deemed an overall success.  The film’s closing 20 minutes leans into the emotional gut-punch Eisenberg clearly hopes to sock to his audience, but, as seems to be typical with movies that attempt to deliver a message (this one with a capital M), this effective ending is undone by the 70-or-so minutes that come prior.

The white upper-middle class and their “progressive” ways are the main targets of Eisenberg’s effort, and he isn’t remotely subtle in their presentation.  They drive smart cars.  They listen to classical music unironically.  And they certainly don’t believe white people should play the blues; this representation is when Eisenberg doesn’t aim for nuance.

The suburbans earning Eisenberg’s ire are Evelyn Katz (Julianne Moore) and her son, Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard, clearly chaneling his director with a sense of entitlement that suits the character but irks us as viewers).  She runs a shelter for families affected by domestic abuse.  He’s a high-schooler-cum-musician whose folksy-pop tunes have amassed him a substantial following on the TikTok-esque platform he performs on.  They’re both extremely passionate about what they do, but they wildly misinterpret each other’s motivations.

The film’s struggle is in that inability for them to see the value in the other’s mission.  Evelyn is practically robotic and so by the book that she’s incredibly detached from reality, whilst Ziggy, though more of a free spirit in theory, similarly expresses a certain disconnection, with his “fame” blinding him to the fact that his only conversational point is that he has “20,000 followers” and is admired for his “passion and charisma”; sequences where he continually stresses this in a bid to impress activist-in-waiting Lila (Alisha Boe) are painful to endure.

Evelyn and Ziggy are so self-importantly sincere that it tragically undoes much of the film, with both of their own individual crusades – she tries to “save” one of her charges (Billy Bryk), he hopes to become more political – not enough to justify spending so much with them.  The connection we truly need as audiences to become emotionally invested is only ever a sporadic thought for Eisenberg, with Evelyn and Ziggy spending so much of the film apart that so much remains unexplored.

Though the film is essentially shallow, a drama for the wealthy with the desire to help but lack the empathy to do so, Eisenberg’s intent is there.  The brief moments of biting commentary on the “white saviour” suggest he has the capacity to tell a fine story, but When You Finish Saving the World ironically lacks the gradation to make a worthy impact.

TWO STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

When You Finish Saving the World is screening as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which is being presented virtually between January 20th and 30th, 2022.  For more information head to the official Sundance page.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.

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