‘When You Finish Saving the World’: Julianne Moore and Finn Wolfhard Exasperate Each Other

A mother who does social work and her internet personality son are more alike than they think in offbeat comedy “When You Finish Saving the World,” the feature directorial debut of actor Jesse Eisenberg. Based on Eisenberg’s 2019 audiobook of the same name, the film follows Evelyn (Julianne Moore) and Ziggy Katz (Finn Wolfhard), two narcissists in their own unique ways, as they attempt to find fulfillment in other relationships instead of working on their own.

The frustrations of Evelyn, who runs a women’s shelter in Bloomington, IN, are palpable as she deals with Ziggy, who spends his free time locked in his room performing music for other teens around the world live on the internet. In return, a lot of them give him tips. Although his songs are original, they are mostly frothy numbers about love and the like, and Evelyn does not have it in her to celebrate Ziggy’s entrepreneurial spirit. Likewise, he has no interest in her work at the shelter and scoffs at the idea of volunteering there.

Soon, Evelyn finds a replacement kid in Kyle (Billy Byrk), a 17-year-old who checks into the shelter with his abused mother, Angie (Elenore Hendricks). Touched by Kyle’s devotion to his mom, studiousness, and willingness to assist her with repairs, Evelyn takes it upon herself to help him get into college. Although he already has plans to work in his father’s body shop full time after graduating high school, Kyle initially welcomes Evelyn’s attention, but mostly out of gratitude for her helping Angie. Although she may have started off with good intentions, Evelyn’s behavior turns increasingly cringey and overbearing, and it becomes apparent that she is mentoring Kyle to scratch some kind of itch she has and compensate for her lack of relationship with Ziggy.

Meanwhile, Ziggy similarly makes a fool of himself pursuing Lila (Alisha Boe), a more serious-minded girl at his school who is into social activism. Like Evelyn, she is not impressed by his internet stardom, and Dr. Freud would probably have a thing or two to say about his relentless pursuit of a young woman so much like the mother he rejects. Instead of seeing a bonding opportunity when Ziggy asks her advice on how to be more political, Evelyn quickly shuts him down.

There’s also a husband-father in the mix, Roger (Jay O. Sanders), a distinguished professor at Indiana University. Roger seems one-dimensional, but this was most likely a deliberate choice by Eisenberg, as Evelyn and Ziggy always suck so much air out of whatever room they’re in that there’s little left for him. A key scene that illustrates the pair’s mutual narcissism occurs when Roger calls them both out for missing an important event. 

With “When You Finish Saving the World,” Eisenberg presents an entertaining character study that also satirizes performative activism and teen obsessions with social media. But the most interesting aspect of the film is its exploration of communication. Ziggy connects with thousands of followers all over the world on a regular basis, but has trouble connecting with his own parents. Similarly, Evelyn has the ability to transform the lives of women and children in the most unfathomable situations, but she can’t seem to get through to her own son and stop him from behaving like an ass.

While it is easy to laugh at someone like Ziggy, Evelyn is a bit more complex. The way she can blind herself to the wants and needs of others in order to satisfy herself is indeed a form of narcissism, even though a lot of what she does at work is positive and impactful. But Eisenberg, along with Moore and Wolfhard, do a nice job of not making these two totally insufferable. Moore, in particular, brings a lot of shades to Evelyn’s character, and it helps that she is such an empathetic actor. 

When You Finish Saving the World” releases Jan. 20 in select theaters.