Review by Sean Boelman
The Day One slot at Sundance is always a prestigious place for a film to premiere, often the debut of a star-studded new movie that is sure to be the talk of the town. This year’s selection, When You Finish Saving the World, is only going to make a splash because of how disappointing of a directorial debut it is for Jesse Eisenberg.
The film follows a mother and son who, struggling with their relationship, as they attempt to find surrogates for each other. Eisenberg is known for his performances that are cold yet somehow charismatic, and while this movie definitely has the expected distant feeling, it has none of the charm to go with it.
Eisenberg’s characters in the film are horribly annoying people. And while it is apparent that the audience is intended to feel some sort of frustration towards them, they are also seemingly supposed to be endearing, and that is not the case. They are people who think that they’re good people, but are actually just horribly self-centered.
One of the chief problems with the movie is that the characters have no real arc. Although they end up at a different place emotionally than where they began in the film, the audience doesn’t get to see much of that change. And so while the audience may sympathize with the characters’ desire to connect with others, the fact that they’re just going through the motions is aggravating.
Julianne Moore tries her best with the role, and while her performance isn’t bad — it’s hard for someone as talented as her to not be good, even when the movie around her isn’t — it doesn’t rank among her best work. Finn Wolfhard, on the other hand, is just terrible. Admittedly, the casting is on-point because of how annoying he actually is, but that doesn’t make it any more pleasant to watch.
However, the single worst thing about the film is how it’s almost hypocritical in nature. We’re watching a fake-woke white boy get called out for his bullshit… but in a movie made by a fake-woke white boy? It’s a script that screams of its creator’s self-awareness without offering any insight beyond the obvious.
In terms of execution, the film is competent, but there’s no real style beyond the music. Visually, it’s very muted in a way that doesn’t even make it feel quirky. The songs performed by Wolfhard’s character do give the movie a bit of distinction, but his not-too-soothing singing voice prevents them from leaving any impact.
When You Finish Saving the World genuinely feels like a chore to get through, and it’s sad given the level of talent involved. Ultimately, we probably shouldn’t have expected anything less from the directorial debut of an actor whose defining characteristic is his idiosyncrasy, but it’s a disappointment nevertheless.
When You Finish Saving the World screened at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, which runs virtually from January 20-30.