Jesse Eisenberg is no stranger to embodying a certain kind of awkwardness and unsociability in front of a camera, and he sticks to what he knows with his feature directorial debut, “When You Finish Saving the World.” The indie drama from A24, which premiered on the opening night of the virtual 2022 Sundance Film Festival on Thursday, is a veritable symphony in awkward conversations; if you’re not cringing half the time, you’re not paying attention.
And like several of the other actors who’ve used Sundance in recent years as a launching pad for their first features as directors – among them Paul Dano (“Wildlife”), Viggo Mortensen (“Falling”), Robin Wright (“Land”), Rebecca Hall (“Passing”), Emerald Fennell (“Promising Young Woman”) and Bo Burnham (“Eighth Grade”) – Eisenberg emerges as a restrained filmmaker who has a clear idea of what he wants to communicate, and a clear, unfussy way of delivering it.
Based on a radio drama that Eisenberg wrote during the pandemic, “When You Finish Saving the World” is a dysfunctional family story about a family that chooses that dysfunction. Teenage troubadour Ziggy Katz (Finn Wolfhard) plays his plaintive folk songs on social media for 20,000 fans around the world, but can’t bear the thought of his parents even touching the doorknob to his room while he’s performing; his mother, Evelyn (Julianne Moore), runs a shelter for battered women and their children, but wouldn’t even think of listening to her own son’s songs; his father, Roger (playwright-actor Jay O. Sanders), mostly sits at the dinner table in the dark, ignored by his wife and son.
Sanders manages to convey volumes with a few lines and a palpable sense of hurt, but his character has been completely sidelined in the move from audio play (where Roger was a central figure) to film. This is the Evelyn & Ziggy show, an exploration of the disconnect between two people whose passions are undercut by a complete lack of social skills and an array of tics and obsessions. She drives much too fast while blasting classical music in her tiny Smart Car; he’s incapable of small talk unless it’s about his online followers, and he masturbates while reading a poem about the Marshall Islands written by the girl he’s got a crush on at school (Lila, played by Alisha Boe).
Evelyn and Ziggy, it seems, can barely be in the same room with each other, though we see hints of a longing for some kind of relationship. But they’re only hints: When Ziggy asks his mom if she can give him a ride to school and tells her he’ll be ready in “five seconds,” she looks at her watch and gives him about 10 before walking out the door.
But both characters are looking for connection somewhere – and if they won’t allow themselves to find it in each other, they do find surrogates of a sort. For Evelyn, it’s Kyle (Billy Bryk), a boy her son’s age who moves into the shelter with his mother, and who seems to be everything Ziggy is not: caring, generous, hard-working. Before long, she’s giving him an old hat of Ziggy’s and plotting to get him a scholarship to Oberlin, not terribly concerned with whether or not he actually wants either of those things.
Ziggy, meanwhile, is besotted with Lila, who talks about colonialism to her classmates and attends after-school multi-media performances by a group of teen firebrands whose agitprop art is often not as cringeworthy. For Ziggy, though, politics seems to be the way to this girl’s heart, so he tries his best to get political, even going so far as to ask his mom’s advice (!) at one point.
That doesn’t go very well – but then, nothing between Lila and Ziggy really does. Moore and Wolfhard aren’t trying to make their characters likable, and neither is Eisenberg. “When You Finish Saving the World” is about two people who mean well (more or less) but seems to be on an inexorable path to humiliation. Their discomfort is contagious, which is part of the point.
As a first-time director, Eisenberg tells a small story that unapologetically basks in its own awkwardness — and when he finds grace notes, he’s smart enough not to overplay them. In its original, radio-drama form, the story played out over five hours and was much more expansive; trimmed down to less than 90 minutes on film, it feels like a short story, compact and uncomfortable and ultimately satisfying.
“When You Finish Saving the World” makes its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. A24 will release the film in the U.S.