And so Sundance 2022 begins with the curtain drawn back by Jesse Eisenberg, an actor who’s long been linked with the festival, with films such as The Squid and the Whale, Adventureland, Holy Rollers, The End of the Tour and last year’s Wild Indian all premiering. His on-screen persona – jittery, insecure, fast-talking, intelligent – made him an ideal poster boy not just for Sundance but the independent scene at large, a writer’s schtick made so believable on screen that it felt inevitable he would soon head behind it.
He went from writing short stories to writing plays and now he’s writing and directing his first film, the so-so festival opener When You Finish Saving the World, based on his audio drama from 2020. Eisenberg doesn’t star but he’s cast Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard to fill the role, the actor doing a successful cover version without leaning into cheap impersonation. He’s Ziggy, a high schooler who devotes his time to his music which he livestreams to an audience of over 20,000 people worldwide, a number he’s endlessly proud of. His mother Evelyn (Julianne Moore) is less impressed, her time focused on the more noble act of running a shelter for victims of domestic abuse.
As the two grow ever distant from each other, they both try to find ways to replace a love that’s grown sour. Ziggy ingratiates himself with the more politically minded chapter at school, motivated by a crush on classmate Lila (13 Reasons Why star Alisha Boe) while Evelyn tries to redirect her maternal instinct to Kyle (Billy Bryk), a teen who’s moved into the shelter with his mother.
What drives them both toward these new pursuits is not just a need to replace some warmth that’s cooled at home but to feel like they’re doing something good and through that process that they might then become good people.
Eisenberg isn’t trying to insist this is The Film We Need Right Now (thank heavens) and his characters don’t directly address the specifics of the time we’re living in (it’s a Covid-shot movie that mercifully doesn’t exist in a Covid-afflicted world) but after two years of us all descending further into an uncontrollable form of global hell, it’s hard not to see an added resonance to his characters’ quest. Who hasn’t tried just that bit harder of late to feel like they’re helping, whether it’s on a micro or a macro level, whether it’s actually achieving anything or not?
What Eisenberg’s script quickly realises is that there’s really no such thing as a selfless act, that helping others is most often a way of helping ourselves. Ziggy’s ignorant callousness can perhaps be chalked up to his youthful naiveté (his thrill at singing political songs is equally matched by his thrill at the money it makes him) while Evelyn’s unhealthy obsession with Kyle is mostly driven by a need to feel needed.
Eisenberg pokes fun at the cushioned liberalism of the family (a dinner table that allows for a father to lecture his son about the cultural appropriation of blues and a son to tell his father to shut the fuck up without consequence) and the safe midwestern pocket they live in, yet never with the specific, unsparing sharpness that, say, Noah Baumbach would have brought (a writer-director whose shadow looms large over the project). It’s a film of people telling themselves they’re making a difference without really doing much of anything and it’s hard not to feel similarly unmoved by the time it’s all over.
The fraught mother-son dynamic feels uneasy and believable (two difficult people struggling to move past the too-comfortable roles they’ve grown out of), and Moore and Wolfhard certainly give it their all, but there’s some added texture missing from who these people really are and in the film’s brief 87-minute runtime it’s left to the heavy lifting of Emile Mosseri’s score to bring any real heft. The ending is particularly, frustratingly rushed, as if we were fooled into thinking this was a novel but it was actually just a short story.
As a first-time director, Eisenberg is at least refreshingly restrained and gimmick-avoidant (this does not look like an A24-funded debut movie), but as a writer with some experience, albeit on stage and on the page, it feels a little anemic. A rocky start.