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2022 Sundance review: When You Finish Saving the World is the zeitgeist of modern teenhood

production still from when you finish saving the world
Julianne Moore and Finn Wolfhart star as the mother-and-son duo Evelyn and Ziggy Katz. Pic credit: A24

When You Finish Saving the World marks a triumphant directorial debut from actor Jesse Eisenberg, best known for starring in Zombieland and The Social Network. The indie drama stars Julianne Moore and Finn Wolfhard as the unlikeable, but well-intentioned, mother-and-son duo Evelyn and Ziggy Katz. While some might find the subjects to be obnoxious and flat, others will find themselves recoiling from this cringefest in the best ways.

Unlike many other A24 coming-of-age dramas, this one knows exactly where it stands. It doesn’t employ an all-white cast to push out lazily-conceptualized social commentary and it doesn’t try to make you fall in love with its flawed characters through snapshots of redemption. Instead, it just lets its characters be and exist in a world where people don’t really like them and their actions have consequences, and their lives are laced with unfulfillment, but in such a normal way that leaves the audience knowing that they’ll be fine.

Based on source material that is dear to Eisenberg’s heart, When You Finish Saving the World draws its inspiration from the 2020 Audible drama with the same name. It sees the return of Wolfhard in the same role: the confused teenager Ziggy.

At the heart of this movie is a mother and son who are desperate to find mutual understanding. Evelyn lives a politically-conscious life, working at a shelter that serves to help victims of domestic abuse. In his younger years, she raised her son to be the same — carting him along to protests and fawning over him as he sang his resistance anthems — but like most people, through his adolescence, Ziggy sought out his independence.

This led him to become an online streamer who plays his folk teeny-bops to a worldwide audience, collecting some spare cash along the way. Ziggy shields himself behind his “I don’t care” attitude and his cool, hipster looks, carrying his guitar everywhere, and looking like a resident jerk. But this is where things get interesting: Eisenberg doesn’t let the audience pretend like that’s not happening.

Ziggy isn’t as cool as he thinks he is, and he knows that

Throughout the movie, Ziggy’s biggest conflict is that he wants to impress his classmate and crush, Lila (Alisha Boe). Lila and her friends are tuned into the social atmosphere and write beats and have conversations about socio-political problems that are plaguing the world. Unfortunately, Ziggy finds himself with nothing to contribute to the conversation.

His sheltered upbringing, facilitated by his inattentive and self-absorbed parents, had led him to live a life where he thinks having a diverse fanbase makes him a civil leader. He drops iterations of the “I have a Black friend” line and “did I tell you how many followers I have?” far too many times for anybody’s comfort.

The teenager makes bad decisions and objectionable comments, and the people around him react to it — leaving the character confused but viewers comforted by the realness of the situation. As this is occurring, the matriarch of the Katz family is stirring up trouble of her own.

Evelyn meets Angie, a victim who had just escaped an abusive relationship. She finds a home at the shelter with her teenage son Kyle. Evelyn inserts herself into Kyle’s life and begins to offer him guidance on his future, pushing him to pursue a college education against his mother’s wishes. She begins to overstep, bringing him to an Ethiopian restaurant and taking a late-night trip to the shelter to deliver him, and him only, a homecooked meal.

As Evelyn and Ziggy’s storylines play out, their self-interest holds the reigns. This only leads them to muck up potential relationship opportunities.

This feels like the zeitgeist of teenhood

When You Finish Saving the World puts forth an awkward, cringy story about teenhood while refusing to give its characters an easy way out. It felt deeply personal through its dark, moody color grading and shamelessly flawed characters.

This drama seamlessly represents the zeitgeist of teenhood — the messiness of it all, the learning curves, the conflicting emotions, and the fear of disconnect. Wolfhard’s Ziggy is a ball of anxiousness, expertly hiding behind a cool-headed facade. He snaps at his parents, pushing them away one moment and then craving for their love and validation in the next. He is a product of the online world and parents who would rather intellectualize their emotions and problems, rather than solve them.

With entertaining performances from all and a director with a fresh perspective (who knows not to overstay his welcome), When You Finish Saving the World is a great addition to the plethora of off-beat coming-of-age movies. It is a unique story that intertwines modern themes and a level of familiarity that will leave its viewers perplexed by the situations playing out (unless they’re a Ziggy, of course).

Want to read more? Check out our 2022 Sundance Film Festival review of Fresh.

When You Finish Saving the World is expected to be released by A24 later in 2022.

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