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- 2022 Sundance Film Festival review.
Stories of now-married ex-radicals with children have often shown them hiding their past from the next generation or instilling it in children as dogma, while When You Finish Saving The World takes the less common but very plausible to wonder if parents might just become some kind of nightmare. Directed and written by Jesse Eisenberg, and developed from his own audio drama of the same name released online in 2020, the film’s deftly sharp comedy of family dysfunction is built on a generational divide between mother and son, and the an even more fragile fault line between the progressives of the 1980s and the current TikTok generation. The two versions on the left are sitting around the same table and seem to not understand each other at all.
The older generation, Evelyn (Julianne Moore), works at a shelter for abused women, where the film makes it clear that her empathy and compassion for the unhappy wives who turn to her for help coexists with an inability to transmit a lot of heat to someone else. . Attempting to strike up a casual conversation with the receptionist at the shelter — an effort that makes Evelyn look like she might be pulling a muscle — she comes across as so pinched that the employee assumes it’s a conversation of dismissal.
Evelyn certainly doesn’t convey much warmth to her son Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard), whose passion is performing his own guitar songs to thousands of worshipers on the Hi-Hat social media platform. Mother and son aren’t on the same network: He treats her beloved classical music as elitist white art, while she interrupts his streaming sessions one too many times and finds him installing a red Do Not Enter beacon large enough for a submarine. Caught in the middle, Evelyn’s husband Roger (Jay O. Sanders) is just a glimpse of the story, making a conservative point about Ziggy’s possible cultural appropriation before the things that matter to him are completely ignored by his wife and son. .
The disconnect between Evelyn and Ziggy is indeed political, and her wasp-ish disappointment within him is the hangover of his progressive left’s failure to achieve its goals, a bitter defeat that now radiates in all directions. She always wanted to be editor-in-chief of Rolling Stone, but now says she’s embarrassed that she wanted anything more than to help people on the ground.
Meanwhile, Ziggy and the Hi-Hat crowd may not have a progressive leftism between them: “I think the world would be a better place if people just chilled out,” he says. But then Ziggy becomes fascinated with his classmate Lila (Alisha Boe) and his political antennae twitch, along with other muscles. As he masturbates to a piece of Lila’s handwriting, director Eisenberg adds to the proceedings with a visual of the waxy contents of a lava lamp flowing vertically upwards; the film, it should be noted, is very funny. Although Eisenberg directs the dialogue-centric story without adding much in the way of visual flamboyance, the faces of Moore and Boe say it all. Ziggy plays Lila a song he created by setting his poem to a neutral folk guitar tune, and the camera catches her watching him as she would a kitten successfully pulling a doorknob.
Lila is already an activist and performer of agitprop poetry on climate change at radical arts parties—gatherings of well-meaning young people that the film views with unbiased understanding, rather than indicating that this batch is actually doing something. Ziggy’s awakening coincides with Evelyn becoming attached to Kyle (Billy Bryk), the son of an inn resident, a young man who seems to be much more the kind of offspring Evelyn had in mind. Hiding this baffling and painful affair (from the public) from her family involves a certain amount of farce, such as when Evelyn rather helplessly brings Kyle a cooked dinner for no real reason, before having to take it all home with an apology.
Equivocal about the ability of the left to focus on the big things, the film captures the current political mood from an oblique angle. The title is as sarcastic as it sounds, the words no doubt ringing in Evelyn’s head the entire time, though the film ends with Woody Guthrie’s song “Union Maid.” Any suggestion that Evelyn has undergone a political reactivation seems remote, but the film is warm enough to think such things are possible.
Originally published: January 25, 2022