Actor turned writer-director Jesse Eisenberg‘s feature directing debut turns out to be just the sort of film you’d expect from the “Social Network/Now You See Me” star.
“When You Finish Saving the World” is smart and articulate. It’s flippant. There’s a hint of idealism, a heavy dose of “not fitting in,” and an earnest desire to do right clashing with some self-mocking narcissism.
Sweet, but brittle. Deep, but kind of twee. You can pick up on that just from the title. And it works, because Eisenberg has a good ear, a good eye and good intentions.
In Ziggy Katz, whose tale Eisenberg originally wrote as an Audible audio drama, Eisenberg has scripted an ambitious, over-compensating, insecure but exhibitionistic teen and thrown him into conflict with his idealistic, “woke” do-gooder mother, a social worker/counselor who runs the local women’s shelter.
It’s a “skips a generation” parable, a kid rejecting the values of his parents, exploiting them to live the way he wants. And it’s a send-up of “Mother Knows Best,” because Mom needs to be paying attention for that to be the case.
Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard) is growing up in a liberal household in a college town — Bloomington, Indiana. He’s got this online “business,” writing “classic folk rock” for this compensated musical vlog that has a whiff of “Fan’s Only” about it. Fans all around the world subscribe and tune in to Ziggy Kills, which he figures is his ticket to fame and glory.
“I’m going to be rich and you’re going to be poor,” he taunts his mother, Evelyn (Oscar winner Julianne Moore).
Ziggy’s self-absorbed and self-delusional. He’s not really picked-up on the mix of introverted teen girls and uh, adults who log into his Zoom meeting style presentations. They might be more interested in the model-cheekboned mop-top sharing a little face time with them.
His parents are tuned-out. Dad’s apparently a retired professor who reads, shops and cooks and frets about “living with two narcissists.” Mom keeps her responses locked on “empathy without emotion” and her face an impassive blank. She’s dealing with trauma and sad stories from women and children in crisis all day long, and a city reluctant to keep her “business” funded. So she’s wrapped up in her own world, too.
She has no idea what she’s walking in on when she ducks her head into Ziggy’s room. He has little interest in her life and work. She’s just a daily SmartCar ride to school, as far as he’s concerned.
But then he finds a new crush, the activist/le-ist Lila (Alisha Boe). Maybe he’s been a little hasty in rejecting his mother’s picket-lines-and-passion-for-causes upbring. Or maybe he’s not self-aware enough to see how needy, self-promoting and shallow he comes off when he brags to Lila about subscribers, ratings and his online “certified” status.
Mother Evelyn is also facing a crisis of confidence. There’s a new teen (Billy Byrk) staying with his mother in her shelter. He is sensitive, studious and possesses “a special heart,” she assures him. Maybe, she thinks, she can alter his life’s path in ways that foul-mouthed backtalker Ziggy never took to. The fact that he’s good-looking may figure into that.
Eisenberg and his stars do a grand job of creating conversational duologues. Neither parent nor child really knows where the other is coming from because they’re talking and not listening. He’s looking for ways to learn to be more tuned-in, and she’s judging this shallow capitalist she barely recognizes for trying to “take a shortcut” to get the attention of a cute leftist “Union Maid.”
He could take the one piece of advice she offers, “listen” and pay attention to the world. She could recognize that she doesn’t need a “guide my son to share my values” do-over. The one living under her roof is still malleable, if she’d just see it.
Eisenberg writes some funny scenes, lightly mocking the leftist club Lila goes to where she can perform her environmental protest poems, see civil rights puppet shows and hear labor movement classics like “The Internationale” sung, a cappella. Ziggy cannot read a room for the life of him.
And the Evelyn/Kyle scenes come right up to the edge of troubling, letting us question motives and wonder just how deep into an R-rating this slight, breezy and yet thoughtful film will go.
The major shortcoming of “When You Finish Saving the World” is its own incompleteness. It feels unfinished. No one life is examined in any real depth. Evelyn’s marriage, Ziggy’s afterthought of a friend-at-school, Kyle’s unwillingness to judge his abusive father, all add up to meat that would flesh out this gentle stor into something more insightful and consequential.
It’s still a promising directing debut from an actor we always assumed was sitting on sets, wide-eyed watching and listening and taking notes between scenes, even when he was just starting out.
Rating: R, for profanity, discussions of spousal abuse
Cast: Julianne Moore, Finn Wolfhard, Alisha Boe, Billy Bryk and Jay O. Sanders.
Credits:Scripted and directed by Jesse Eisenberg. An A24 release.
Running time: 1:29