Every day, awkward teenager Ziggy Katz (Finn Wolfhard, “It”) locks his bedroom door, picks up his guitar and clicks away on the computer. He streams his self-proclaimed “folk rock” music to a modest online fan base, collects their money, and then logs off, already planning his next gig.
This is the practice around which Ziggy’s lonely school life revolves. In between appearances on the Internet, he goes to school, looks up to his classmate Lila (Alisha Boe, “Revenge”) and fights with his mother Evelyn (Julianne Moore, “Dear Evan Hansen”).
As director of a women’s shelter, Evelyn is consistently altruistic. She has no patience for selfishness – even if that selfish person is her own son. As Ziggy becomes more and more into music, Evelyn grows more distant. To fill her time, she strikes up an awkward friendship with Kyle (Billy Brick, The Night Shift), a teenager who lives at her shelter. She sees in him everything that Ziggy lacks – humility, love and potential. She gives him gifts and takes him out to dinners, buying his favor instead of trying to build a relationship with her son. It’s uncomfortable and intense, transforming Evelyn from a reserved but concerned mother into a figure as foolish and reprehensible as Ziggy.
The lack of a relationship between Ziggy and Evelyn is the proper focus of Jesse Eisenberg’s directorial debut. He is an actor known for his wordy, moving performances (such as in Now You See Me) and a writer obsessed with complex interpersonal relationships. When You’re Done Saving the World combines these two concerns, spending most of its brief running time on neurotic exchanges between mother and son.
Both fight over almost everything. Ziggy likes to be left alone during his live shows; Evelyn knocks on his door. Evelyn wants Ziggy to help out at the women’s shelter; he casually declines. Moore’s razor-sharp performance as Evelyn has a delightfully sinister edge, while Wolfhard is a convincingly awkward teenager. Both are stubborn and self-centered, often oblivious to the third member of their family — Ziggy’s quiet, emotionally distant father, Roger (J.O. Sanders, “The Helper”). Evelyn throws herself into her work, Ziggy plays his music, and Roger watches it all go down with a glass of wine in hand. The best parts of the film are when these three characters are together in the same room, focusing on their personal flaws and shared history. It’s a believably unfortunate situation, a familiar picture of upper-middle-class discontent.
Unfortunately, the film tends to stumble whenever it loses its family focus. Characters like Leela are almost completely underdeveloped. She exists only as a catalyst for Ziggy’s clumsy attempts to “get political.” This, in turn, leads to a disgustingly out-of-place subplot in which Ziggy tries to join Lila’s high school activist group. Leela and her friends are cartoonishly serious about climate change and poverty, seeming to only care about slam poetry and corporate evil. It makes the film palpable, reducing a potentially interesting group of Gen-Z characters to charming, one-dimensional revolutionaries.
The chronic shallowness of the characters probably could have been mitigated with a slightly longer runtime. If there had been room to rein in Lila and her friends’ activism with some mundane teenage moments, her humanity and Ziggy’s admiration for her would have felt more believable.
In fact, When You’re Done Saving the World is only 88 minutes long. What little precious time is used to heal the teenage angst and family disharmony it represents. But as the title suggests, this is not meant to be a story about closure. “When you’re done saving the world” heroic moments and happy endings are definitely in the future. These are possibilities, hypotheticals, hopeful thoughts without promised solutions.
“When You Finish Saving the World” is all about that slippery “if” – when Ziggy grows out of his selfishness, when his mom loves him again, when his music career takes off, when he gets a girlfriend. They all remain elusive. By the end of the movie, neither Ziggy nor Evelyn have saved the world. Eisenberg cuts the film short before the cathartic end, pinning the audience’s hopes on an unwritten future.
He insists that “if” moments are always possible — no matter how far past the end credits.
Daily Arts writer Lola D’Onofrio can be reached at email@example.com.