Sundance 2022 review: When You Finish Saving the World (Jesse Eisenberg)

“Cinema is first and foremost an art of empathy; and maybe, just maybe, we keep telling stories to remind us to care about each other. That is why a film should be able to stand on its own, something which When You Finish Saving the World fails to accomplish.”

I remember seeing an interview with Susan Sontag and Agnès Varda about their films and whether or not their respective characters resembled real people and honest human interactions, or if it was even possible to accomplish that. One thing that stuck with me was Sontag’s obsession with the feelings a movie can provoke and how any conversation about “feeling real or not” should begin there. “People don’t talk in movies like they do in real life, they don’t interrupt each other in a film,” she says at some point, meaning that film as a medium allows us to look at things, memories, situations and so forth from our own reality, but the way it does is as much a part of the conversation as what is being represented. Form and content, not the one or the other. This particular interview, although dealing with a broader scope than representing reality in cinema, was the first thing that came to mind as I finished watching Jesse Eisenberg’s feature film debut When You Finish Saving the World, a film about a mother and son acting as a metaphor for different generations and their need to find a common ground to heal their relationship.

Borrowing Sontag’s words once again, if “people don’t talk in movies like they do in real life” that becomes a huge problem for When You Finish, because it fails to create an atmosphere that resembles the real life of teenagers, and it fails in using how strangely rehearsed the characters’ dialogues feel in its favour. The tone never becomes clear here. Perhaps the main reason is that the characters are anything but characters; Eisenberg’s screenplay uses them as a tool to echo his own political comments. Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard) is a regular teen that spends his days online, streaming his original folk-rock songs and getting donations from his fans. There’s nothing that sets him apart from our reality in which everyone is constantly online. Things change, however, when he falls for Lila (Alisha Boe) – a leftist girl who only talks about politics and changing the world. It’s hard to get over a scene in which a group of teens is having lunch at their school cafeteria, and as Lila complains about the US interventionist politics in the Middle East a boy asks her, “Would you prefer China? Or Russia?” Because that’s how kids talk these days, right?

Here’s the main problem: Ziggy, first introduced as a normal kid, becomes a stereotype or tool for not only Eisenberg’s own political views, but also for what he thinks a teenager acts like. In one instance Ziggy goes to an open-mic night full of ‘leftist teenagers’ – whatever that means – and is criticized for singing a song about his life and fears instead of using his platform to change the world. One can even see the artificial ways in which politics are presented in a coming-of-age film as a mechanism for Eisenberg to justify the relevance of his own film. And once again, basing the argument on the Sontag and Varda interview, that is the issue; when art needs to justify itself instead of simply existing on its own merits we get closer to propaganda, the aestheticization of politics. That may simply be boring but can even be dangerous, as for example in fascist propaganda films. All the conversation about politics and the state of things needs follow up. There’s no need for ‘starting a conversation’ to be the only goal.

So politics are clearly a problem here. In another scene Ziggy even says that he knows there are people suffering and hungry, but he sings songs so that they can forget about their hunger. There is no need to go further into the implications of such a line, but what I can do is point out how Eisenberg’s screenplay tells, or tries to tell, a story about the importance of meeting people halfway; politically this goes for Ziggy and Lila, and emotionally for Ziggy and his mom (Julianne Moore), but in both cases the so-called ‘halfway’ is already where they are, so the character motivations make even less sense. Of course Lila is openly more political than Ziggy; she is an activist, she cares about people. But the thing is that Ziggy comes from a liberal family, he also cares about people and he understands that people connect with him online because they are all lonely. He is never portrayed as a bad kid or having far-right political views; he is simply different from her. Is her activism the problem here? Is it Ziggy that should be doing more? But what is more in this scenario? His mom is a social worker who helps people get their lives back on track. But as she and Ziggy fight, she grows closer to a boy she is helping to get a job, to go to college – even taking him out for dinner. It’s compensation both for her difficulty in talking to her own son and for her need to help others; whether this is out of white guilt or a strong sense of empathy is something the film never bothers to fully develop.

What it all boils down to is that Ziggy wants the girl of his dreams and his mom’s full attention, yet both women are busy saving the world, which for Eisenberg is nothing but endlessly talking about injustice and doing community service. The politics are messy, the characters poorly written. If I could say something – again inspired by Sontag and Varda – it is that being alive and trying to find any amount of pleasure possible in this chaotic world is not only enough but is the most political thing one can do. Cinema is first and foremost an art of empathy; and maybe, just maybe, we keep telling stories to remind us to care about each other. That is why a film should be able to stand on its own, something which When You Finish Saving the World fails to accomplish.