I didn’t know what to expect from Jesse Eisenberg‘s directorial debut When You Finish Saving the World. I went into it knowing nothing about the premise or that it was based on an audio-drama that Eisenberg had written. All I knew was that it was from one of my favorite studios (A24), had an actress I love, Julianne Moore, and a kid from Stranger Things, Finn Wolfhard, who now solidly stands in his own name outside of the Netflix series that gave him his debut. That said, when I hit play on the A24 slice of life, I got more emotion than I expected.
When You Finish Saving the World is a grounded look at a mother and son at the worst point in their relationship. Taking small tropes from rom-coms and applying them to a maternal relationship, we see Evelyn (Julianne Moore) try to hide that she’s been attempting to turn one of Ziggy’s classmates into a surrogate son, we see her lie about having dinner with him at a restaurant Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard) loves, and we ultimately see what happens when you try to mother someone who, well isn’t yours. On the other hand, we see Ziggy push staunchly against his mom who is more concerned with her non-profit than her life at home. He plays Gen Z music on a live-streaming service where he makes tips and of course, he immediately thinks that his songs can change the world more than his mother’s work offering shelter to battered families. Both Evelyn and Ziggy are having the same conversation with each other but using different words and as such, missing what’s being said.
When Ziggy sees success using an open that his crush wrote on his live stream, he begins a foray into political activism that is most definitely not to get attention from him his political mother. While Ziggy is stumbling through romance and choosing to rebel by trying to raise awareness of colonialism, Ziggy has become an overbearing mother figure to Kyle (Billy Bryk), pushing him down a path that she wants and forgetting that Kyle still has a mother and one that understands where he wants to go. As the two are met with conflict and resistance in the things they’ve chosen as replacements for their mother-son relationship, they eventually find themselves pulled back together and thankful for what they had all along.
When You Finish Saving the World is simple, relatable, and delivers dynamic performances that never aim to be more than just real people. The writing shows an understanding of how families work as much as how they don’t and ultimately feels like a lived experience with all of the awkwardness carefully explored. As a mom Evelyn is insufferable. She tries too hard with one kid while resenting her actual son. While this makes her unlikeable right from the jump, Ziggy is also absolutely annoying, and you can see why his mom looks past him. When You Finish Saving the World doesn’t necessarily want you to root for its unlikable leads as much as it wants you to throw your hands up and understand that the only way the worst of them gets solved is if they come together. In that way, it’s not unlike real life.
I was an insufferable teenager. I rebelled, I yelled, and I even threw something one time while fighting about something I don’t even remember now. When I got National Honor Society acceptance in High School I came home and threw the paper on my mom’s desk and told her “This is yours, not mine.” I was a little shit, for lack of a better explanatory phrase. But my mom constantly compared me to my cousin and often said the words “your best friend is the daughter I always wanted.” There was dual going on in the house that didn’t always make sense and always left my dad and brother at the kitchen table awkwardly just there, trying to mediate or just stay out of the way.
It’s crazy to me to look at this extremely privileged family and their upper-middle-class problems and identify with them. Ziggy is completely out of touch and has no understanding of the world. Evelyn’s constant microaggressions and well-meaning white woman behaviors hit you over the head constantly. But here I am, saying “oh, this play is about us.” When You Finish Saving the World is about me and my mom. It’s about you and your mom or your dad. It’s absurd in some ways, but it’s always sincere. While their problems and fights are different than the ones I had, the meaning and reasoning are the same. Eisenberg manages to capture humor in the banality of life, and map the way parents talk past their children, how children try to rebel through ways rooted in wanting acceptance, and does it all with little spectacle. When You Finish Saving the World is an unassuming film that absolutely hits home.
When You Finish Saving the World is available now on VOD.
When You Finish Saving the World
- Rating - 8/108/10
When You Finish Saving the World is about me and my mom. It’s about you and your mom or your dad. It’s absurd in some ways, but it’s always sincere. While their problems and fights are different than the ones I had, the meaning and reasoning are the same. Eisenberg manages to capture humor in the banality of life, and map the way parents talk past their children, how children try to rebel through ways rooted in wanting acceptance, and does it all with little spectacle. When You Finish Saving the World is an unassuming film that absolutely hits home.
Kate Sánchez is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of But Why Tho? A Geek Community. There, she coordinates film, television, anime, and manga coverage. Kate is also a freelance journalist writing features on video games, anime, and film. Her focus as a critic is championing animation and international films and television series for inclusion in awards cycles.