Jesse Eisenberg's When You Finish Saving The World is a worthy effort that could have been something special, but it's just kind of there.

Sundance Film Review: When You Finish Saving the World


Sundance Review: When You Finish Saving The World
Director: Jesse Eisenberg

Fruit Tree Productions
Premieres: 5:30 p.m. MST 01.20 

The 2022 Sundance Film Festival kicked off with the world premiere of When You Finish Saving The World, the debut film from Jesse Eisenberg, who is perhaps best known for comic book supervillains like Lex Luthor and Mark Zuckerberg.

When You Finish Saving The World centers around Finn Wolfhard (Ghostbusters: Afterlife) as Ziggy Katz, a shallow teen musician looking for internet stardom. Ziggy has built up a following of 20,000 people, live streaming on a fictional TikTok like platform, but his songs and his life are both lacking in substance. Ziggy’s mother, Evelyn (Julianne Moore), runs a shelter for domestic abuse survivors and is a serious-minded political activist. While Ziggy and Evelyn used to share a close relationship, they have gone in different directions and their only real interaction comes in the form of yelling at each other. When Angie (Eleonore Hendricks, Honeybee) moves into the center with her son Kyle (Billy Bryk, Crisis), Evelyn sees a spark of something in the boy and finds that she is able to connect and converse with him in a way that she can’t with her own son. 

Eisenberg adapts When You Finish Saving The World from an original audio drama he wrote and produced, and it’s a promising character study about the divides between people, but it feels very much like an early draft that’s still in the workshopping phase. Wolfhard and Moore give honest and committed performances, and on a certain level, I found myself caring about Ziggy and Evelyn. That said, it would have been nice if just once in the 88-minute runtime I’d actually liked something about either of them. Eisenberg’s directorial approach seems to largely stand back and rely upon his actors to tell the story, which could have really worked if there was a stronger story to tell. 

It’s not that When You Finish Saving The World isn’t about anything—it definitely has a kernel of an idea that could really pop with the right level of heat—but much like its characters, Eisenberg’s screenplay seems to be more sure about its own sadness and vague sense of longing than about what it actually wants. On the plus side, Wolfhard really sells the musical numbers despite limited vocal abilities, and Alisha Boe (13 Reasons Why) shines in the role of Lila, a girl at school whom Ziggy is desperate to impress. But the premise relies so heavily on its two talented stars never coming together that the story has no choice but to follow suit, and the movie rarely gels. The sweet, if abrupt, ending does help make up for some of the shortcomings along the way.

When You Finish Saving The World is a worthy effort that could have been something special, but it’s just kind of there; it may be too successful at conveying the frustration of watching wasted potential (and I’m not talking about Evelyn watching Ziggy). It’s a lackluster opening for this year’s festival, and it definitely left me hoping that the best was yet to come. –Patrick Gibbs