When You Finish Saving the World is exactly the type of film you would expect Jesse Eisenberg to direct. Full of nervous energy, fraught family dynamics and self-righteous loathing, the film echoes many of his performances. Eisenberg is a skilled storyteller and while the film wraps up far too neatly to have an impact, the majority of the film is smartly observed and beautifully acted by Finn Wolfhard and Juliane Moore.
Moore and Wolfhard play a mother and son who are at extreme odds with each other. They both suffer from narcissism masked as altruism. They both think they can help people but often have the wrong motivations for doing so. Moore plays Evelyn Katz, a woman who runs a shelter for domestic violence victims. Wolfhard plays Ziggy, a musician and livestreamer who wants to become political like the girl he likes. These two off-putting characters are selfish people who too often do damage while trying to "help." This is because they both are more concerned about what they want rather than what others need.
Ziggy tries to bond with Lila (Alisha Boe), his aforementioned political classmate with whom he has a crush on. He tries to front as an activist but Lila doesn't buy it. She still gives him a chance but Ziggy's self-absorbed ways get in the way. Evelyn begins to obsess with a young man about Ziggy's age who is staying with his mother at the shelter. Evelyn tries to force her ideas upon this young man, crossing several lines in the process.
When You Finish Saving The World's message is about communication. If Evelyn and Ziggy could just think for a second about someone other than themselves, they might be able to talk to each other. While this message is clear, the film still often feels like something is missing from it. This becomes apparent in the final act which rushes its conclusion without offering much explanation for how these self-absorbed characters change.
Despite some of these flaws, the film is an enjoyable watch. This is largely due to the charm of its leads. Wolfhard gives an honest and exposed performance, doing his own singing and guitar playing. It is an earnest performance that helps the audience to care about Ziggy even when he is being awful. Moore gives Evelyn a frazzled energy but underneath that is a woman who desperately wants to connect with people. Moore underscores many moments with this sense of longing and sadness.
Eisenberg shows promise with his debut here. While the screenplay may rush its ending, lessening the overall impact, the performances are uniformly great.