Although Jesse Eisenberg is well known to movie audiences due to starring in films like Zombieland and his Oscar-nominated role in The Social Network, he is becoming a force elsewhere in the arts with a series of plays, short stories, and New Yorker pieces all now leading to a smart, funny, knowing and entirely accomplished first feature as writer and director. When You Finish Saving the World, making its world premiere tonight at the (virtual) Sundance Film Festival, puts a different spin on familial relationships as it travels on two tracks centering on an activist-workaholic-socially concerned mother whose disappointment with her teenage son’s more frivolous pursuits leads her in surprising directions, just as that boy tries against all odds to pursue a bright and desirable girl at school who is deeply involved in political causes. It is a very funny conundrum for both mother and son as they venture away from each other while becoming the last to discover they actually are alike in more ways they ever could have imagined.
Maybe it is his experience in working with directors on the scale of David Fincher and Noah Baumbach, but Eisenberg proves himself a true natural behind the camera and a sharp observer of the human condition, never laying anything on too thick but discovering a quirky commonality we share in a world becoming more divided. That chasm is played out here in a family unit where ultimately love and connection will hopefully prevail. The fun, as in the best human comedy, is how we get there.
It is also not at all surprising to see an actor of Eisenberg’s skill turn out to be a sharp guide in getting pitch-perfect performances from his stars Julianne Moore and Finn Wolfhard, as well as an exceptionally well-chosen supporting cast. Moore once again brings trademarked complexity and just the right small touches to Evelyn Katz, a wife and mother who is driven by social causes and in particular the domestic violence shelter she runs day and night. She is certainly a bleeding heart and a mom who has become truly disappointed that her teenage son Ziggy (Wolfhard) seems consumed with what she considers shallow activities, primarily his obsession in singing his quirky rock songs to 20,000 followers of his streaming show he produces weekly out of his room. The songs are just snappy enough to make you believe he could amass this cyber group of fans, while never being actually memorable.
At complete odds with his mother who hopes for better, Ziggy is totally obsessed with his musical pursuits until he catches sight of a pretty classmate, Lila (Alisha Boe), who is dedicated to fighting for social causes and writes poetry in support of her beliefs that the world is going down fast unless we get involved and save it. Without an ounce of appreciation for this kind of activism (the kind his mother also has), Ziggy decides to try to take a short cut in convincing Lila he is right there with her in saving the world, but his efforts are not too successful as Lila can see right through them. On a separate track, Evelyn meets Kyle (Billy Bryk), the teen son of Angie (Eleonore Hendricks), who has come to the shelter for help. Slowly Evelyn’s attention turns toward nurturing him as she sees in Kyle a kid with the kind of potential her own son lacks. This leads to her spending more time with him trying to get him away from working at a dead end job for his dad. Eisenberg skillfully weaves from mom’s pursuits to Ziggy’s pursuits, bringing lots of nuance, humor and heart to it all.
Moore has one of her best recent outings with this role, a mother questioning how her own son has grown up to be someone to whom she can’t relate, but really putting too much of her own expectations and life’s disappointments on him instead of where they belong. Wolfhard is a quirky delight as the carefree Ziggy, expertly nailing the idiosyncratic ways of a free-spirited teenage boy marching to the beat of his own drummer but trying to be something he is not. I haven’t seen this charmingly original a teen boy on screen since Dennis Christopher in Breaking Away (a gem of a movie btw this one has a kind of kinship to if you ask me). Bryk and Boe do well as the objects of interest in the story, while veteran Jay O. Sanders brings deadpan precision to Ziggy’s dad and Evelyn’s husband.
Merging activism, the fate of the planet and other lofty themes with more trivial pursuits, Eisenberg comes up with a winning debut. Producers for this first feature effort from Fruit Tree production company are Emma Stone, Dave McCary and Ali Herting, along with Moore. A24 is the distributor.