Skip to main content
film review

Finn Wolfhard and Julianne Moore in When You Finish Saving The World.Photo Credit: Beth Garrabrant/The Associated Press

  • When You Finish Saving the World
  • Written and directed by Jesse Eisenberg
  • Starring Finn Wolfhard, Julianne Moore and Alisha Boe
  • Classification N/A; 88 minutes
  • Opens in select theatres Jan. 27

There’s an early scene in When You Finish Saving the World that sees Ziggy, a teenage music streamer played by Finn Wolfhard, visit an open mic afternoon hosted by a bunch of budding teen activists. Onstage, a high schooler wearing a sweatshirt reading CORPORATE AMERICA plays puppeteer to another teen, whose top says POLITICIAN. “We don’t ever tell lies,” they say in droning unison. “Or do we?”

A well-intentioned performance, but one that’s underdeveloped in its execution. Too on the nose. Greater points completely undercut by ham-fistedness. We get it.

The scene in particular is exactly what When You Finish Saving the World is in general. The directorial debut from actor Jesse Eisenberg, based on his audiobook of the same name, does so much telling, and so little showing, that it’s hard not to walk away from the film feeling, frankly, talked down to.

The movie is mostly a two-hander, with Julianne Moore playing Evelyn, the mother of Wolfhard’s Ziggy. Evelyn runs a shelter for abused women, while Ziggy cashes in as a singer-songwriter online, live-streaming his myopic pop tunes to apparent legions of fans worldwide. Both mother and son think their own work is, well, world-saving, while failing to understand the significance of the other’s. Although (or perhaps because) the two fail to connect, they each find themselves seeking to bond with outsiders who mirror mother and son: Ziggy develops a crush on a politically active schoolmate, while Evelyn pursues a connection with the teenage son of a shelter client.

Thematically, When You Finish Saving the World treads well-worn coming-of-age territory, with some smart 21st-century pivots.Karen Kuehn/The Associated Press

Thematically, When You Finish Saving the World treads well-worn coming-of-age territory, with some smart 21st-century pivots (the perils of developing a political consciousness in the age of TikTok, for instance, seen from the perspective of both parent and teen). But there’s a two-dimensionality to the film that threatens to completely deflate the nuance of its subject matter – and a lot of that is owing to the inelegance of its dialogue. Twenty-year-old Wolfhard, playing the obvious Eisenberg analogue with his rapid-fire, clipped delivery, gets a pass for being unable to elevate the heavy-handedness of the script; Moore puts in a herculean effort, but even in her more-than-capable hands, it falls flat.

It’s difficult not to think of The Squid and the Whale, Eisenberg’s breakout film role, when watching his directorial debut. The strength in that movie’s exploration of its central, similar themes came from moments of quiet subtext, with director Noah Baumbach flexing his muscles as a visual storyteller. Eisenberg is a talented writer (Bream Gives Me Hiccups: and Other Stories, his 2015 collection, is a lot of fun!), but When You Finish Saving the World simply doesn’t work as a direct audiobook-to-screen adaptation. It makes its points so hard, and so brazenly, it’s a little – as Ziggy and his Gen Z pals might say – cringe.

It’s not all a wash, though. The film has a few scenes of real poignancy, like when Ziggy translates a poem written by his crush (an underused Alisha Boe) into a song. Moore, as always, is a pleasure to watch. The film’s sparseness and at-times shaky camerawork give it a veracity that’s occasionally unnerving. And there are some good, strong ideas at its core! Perhaps a first-time director can be forgiven, like those teenage puppeteers, for not knowing how to get a message across without wearing it on his sleeve.