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Sundance Review: “When You Finish Saving the World” Is a Sharp and Sweet Debut for Jesse Eisenberg

Written by: Hannah Tran | January 21st, 2022

Jesse Eisenberg, director of WHEN YOU FINISH SAVING THE WORLD, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Karen Kuehn.

When You Finish Saving the World (Jesse Eisenberg, 2022) 4 out of 4 stars.

“Congratulations on your birthday,” says Evelyn, the stiff and intellectual upper-middle class woman who runs a domestic violence shelter. This awkward phrasing and even more awkward delivery typifies the intelligent grasp on character in When You Finish Saving the World, the directorial debut of multi-hyphenate talent Jesse Eisenberg (Resistance). Much like this line of dialogue, this film works well because it embodies the nuanced characters at its heart with every line and with every action.

Evelyn struggles to find the right words to say. Her son, a marginally viral musician named Ziggy, finds all the wrong ones. More than anything, these two want to be cared for by each other, but their inability to express themselves does everything to push each other away. Following this seemingly impossible mother-son duo through their daily struggles to find another connection in their separate worlds, Eisenberg delivers a powerful cinematic introduction to his uniquely talented voice.

Eisenberg’s personality shines through in the flawless cast. The most obvious dynamic, the one between Julianne Moore (Still Alice) and Finn Wolfhard (Netflix’s Stranger Things series), as Evelyn and Ziggy, is captivatingly tense. They both seem to understand what their characters lack and how those missing things lead to their actions. The screenplay is entirely motivated by character and is, delightfully, unafraid to poke fun at the ways these people embody the universal tendency towards self-absorption and the ways they amplify this in one another. Because both have such a strong set of values and vastly incompatible senses of self, there is an abundance of natural, relatable conflict between them. With each piece of dialogue, prop, or mannerism, Eisenberg and the actors push these roles into wonderfully cringeworthy and reprehensible territory, and this actually makes them all the more sympathetic.

l-r: Finn Wolfhard and Julianne Moore in WHEN YOU FINISH SAVING THE WORLD, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Beth Garrabrant.

While the protagonists may always be at odds, however, the creative elements here are completely in sync. The rarely sentimental but ultimately sweet tone is steady, throughout. There is an unassuming quality to the visual look of the film, and there are plenty of comical images and cuts scattered everywhere. Above all, the sound design and the music, in terms of the story and the score, further highlight the strengths of the film. Each of these elements feels very organic, intimate, and futuristic in an alien sort of way. Eisenberg is much less interested in the discussions within this film and rather in what having those discussions means and how it represents where we’re at as a society in this specific moment. But while the genuinely hilarious comedy and conversation topics at play here feel distinctly modern, the film is interestingly committed to the classical storyline about a family at its heart.

In many ways, it almost feels like a more contemporary spiritual successor to Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale, in which Eisenberg, himself, starred. Both have a similar sense of cleverness and an intimately personal feel. This one is slightly more hopeful, although it is a heart-wrenching experience to reach that more positive moment of emotional release. Throughout the simple, smart, and suspenseful tale of generational differences and compassion toward those in your life, Eisenberg delivers a sharp, complex narrative that serves as a powerful introduction to his directorial voice.

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Hannah Tran is a film critic and filmmaker from Las Vegas, Nevada. Hannah works as a film screener for the Las Vegas Film Festival and publishes an independent zine focused on highlighing Asian American filmmaking.

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