There's a certain kind of minor-key, uniquely Sundance-y genre of movie that might be called Small Epiphanies: modestly scaled indies in which fretful protagonists — melancholy, neurotic, generally upper-middle-class — must learn to grow and change, but not, you know, too much.
When You Finish Saving the World (which premiered last night at this year's virtual festival) takes its cues from that long line: a shaggy discomfort dramedy centered on the semi-estrangement between a suburban Indiana social worker named Evelyn (Julianne Moore) and her teenage son, Ziggy (Stranger Things' Finn Wolfhard). It also happens to be the directing debut of actor Jesse Eisenberg, who has appeared in more than a few films like this (see: The Squid and the Whale, Adventureland, The Art of Self Defense), and his experience shows in its talky, familiar contours.
In another World, he might have played the young lead. As it is, Eisenberg falls almost exactly between the ages of his two main characters: Evelyn, with her earthenware pendants and oversized goblets of Malbec, is every NPR-subscribing, Smart car-driving Boomer of a certain age; that leaves Ziggy to be the prototypical Gen-Z kid, locked in his bedroom livestreaming strummy ballads like he's the next Shawn Mendes while his mildly aggrieved parents wait for him to come to the dinner table, or just care about anything at all besides his subscriber count. (Did you know he has 20,000 followers? He might have mentioned it once or twice).
Sundance Institute 'When You Finish Saving The World'
Their disagreements all spring from ordinary stuff: Evelyn wants Ziggy to go back to the sweet earnest boy he used to be, Ziggy just wants to be left alone to work on his personal brand, and the beleaguered man of the house (stalwart character actor Jay O. Sanders) is stuck somewhere in between, playing ineffective referee. Fueled by frustration and mutual exhaustion, they start seeking out substitutes for one another outside of home, a sort of proxy emotional support human to fulfill the needs they're each not meeting.
Evelyn finds it at work when a new intake at the domestic-violence shelter she oversees turns out to be a traumatized single mom (Eleanore Hendricks) with a son named Kyle (Ghostbusters: Afterlife's Billy Bryk) who seems like everything Ziggy's not: sensitive, kind, constantly concerned about his mother's state of mind. So she decides to turn him into a project, plowing ahead on plans for Kyle's future — he's a perfect candidate for Oberlin, he just doesn't know it yet! — that have very little to do with what his actual hopes and dreams might be. At the same time, Ziggy finds himself enraptured by a pretty, self-assured classmate (13 Reasons Why's Alisha Boe) whose penchant for beat poetry and progressive politics put his navel-gazing naiveté in sharp relief. (Never mind that his parents raised him on justice marches and protest songs; that ship sailed with puberty).
Adapting the script from his own 2020 audio play, Eisenberg treats his cast with measured acidity, drawing out their snarky moods and narcissistic missteps without mocking them too cruelly; you may not particularly love these characters, but that's no match for how little they like themselves. His hot takes on contemporary culture — the vapidity of social media, the low-grade despair and myopia of midlife ennui — often feel like soft targets, though at least a few jabs are sharp enough to land. (The Smart car alone somehow provides endless visual gags). But the script, as befits all Small Epiphanies, has a bigger plan for them anyway: redemption delivered incrementally and in single-serve doses, even if the world outside remains unchanged. Grade: B