When You Finish Saving the World – Sundance Review

As a huge fan of Jesse Eisenberg, I was unquestionably excited for his directorial debut. He’s slowly built an excellent resume from Noah Baumbach to David Fincher to James Pondsoldt to Riley Stearns. And similar to Jonah Hill, A24 decided to give Eisenberg a shot to showcase his awkward charm behind the camera. The result is a disappointing and undercooked question mark of a film.

It follows Ziggy(Finn Wolfhard), a high school folk singing Youtube star who’s oblivious to how shallow he comes across. He makes simple happy music for people to escape the mundanity of life. But once he develops a crush on the intellectual poet Lila(Alisha Boe), Ziggy decides to become a more “serious” artist. Meanwhile, Evelyn(Julianne Moore) runs a domestic abuse survivor shelter, his emotionally detached mother. She becomes borderline obsessed with the son(Billy Bryk) of one of her survivors. Don’t worry, and it’s not “Fatal Attraction.” Evelyn doesn’t connect with Ziggy anymore, and this other boy is the opposite of Ziggy, so she thinks he deserves a better mother figure. Someone who can give him direction. I think.

Eisenberg’s direction is at once assured, then contrived the next. The runtime of 86 minutes never fully connects emotionally because the character arcs are rushed. It honestly feels like an extended HBO pilot. Evelyn’s turn, in particular, is peculiar and kind of creepy. And Ziggy’s is predictably superficial.

Moore is considered one of the greats for a reason and adds a blunt edge to this film. Her chemistry with Wolfhard also felt genuine. But her character is so frustrating, and her motives are beyond head-scratching. Wolfhard was the real takeaway here. His naivety and the way he delivers the line “I don’t play Blues dad, shut the fuck up” is sublime. Wolfhard feels like the one authentic character here, even if he comes across as a male Cher from “Clueless” at first. Jay O. Sanders, as Moore’s husband/Finn’s father, is underused but stole every moment he had. And Bryk is competent, if a bit plain and not given enough to chew on.

Even when Eisenberg lifts the plagiarism bit from “Squid and the Whale” for the 3rd act of this film, it only frustrates me that he isn’t transcending anything and ultimately gives us a simple tale of mother-son dysfunction. I do think Eisenberg could make an iconic A24 film someday. But this feels 20 minutes too short, and the final scene feels wholly unearned and downright random. I didn’t feel Evelyn and Ziggy grow genuinely closer, and that’s the problem. If you don’t think THAT connection, then what’s the point?

Grade: C

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