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(The 2022 Sundance Film Festival runs January 20-30 all virtually. Check out Chris Reed’s movie review of When You Finish Saving the World. Like what you see here on Hammer to Nail? Why not pay just $1.00 per month via Patreon to help keep us going?)

Making his directorial debut, actor Jesse Eisenberg (Resistance) brings his own eponymous audiobook to the screen, casting Julianne Moore (Gloria Bell) and Finn Wolfhard (Netflix’s Stranger Things series) as an estranged mother and son each going through individual (and connected) life crises. Unafraid to look human frailty squarely in the eye, Eisenberg never flinches as he portrays the awkward fumblings of his protagonists. Equally lost in their respective heads, Evelyn (Moore) and Ziggy (Wolfhard, who voiced the same character in the source material) struggle forward without any kind of navigational aid, hoping to somehow find a path forward. It’s not easy growing up, for parent or child, and When You Finish Saving the World beautifully captures that terrible transition in all its painful glory.

The first time we see the teenage Ziggy, it’s through the eyes of his followers on a social-media site where he regularly premieres his latest songs. He’s quite proud of his 20,000 fans (a number he regularly quotes), a diverse group from around the world. Unfortunately, the girl he likes at school, Lila (Alisha Boe, Yes, God, Yes), is more interested in politics and, you know, saving the world. But that’s not really Ziggy’s thing, though he suddenly wants it to be. Heartbreak and embarrassment may lie ahead.

Meanwhile, Evelyn has her own problems. The director of a center for abused women, she’s committed to her ideals but otherwise disengaged from much else, including Ziggy and her affable, if placid, husband, Roger (Jay O. Sanders, DC Noir). She’s also clearly very depressed, perhaps clinically so. When she does a new intake of a mother and son and sees how close they appear, she becomes increasingly interested in spending time with that young man, Kyle (Billy Bryk, Ghostbusters: Afterlife). Maybe she hopes to recapture the lost magic of her relationship with Ziggy, or perhaps something less appropriate. Whatever her motivations, she seeks out Kyle’s company more and more.

Eisenberg juggles all these elements with skill, rescuing the hackneyed (but universal) themes of adolescent alienation from their overly familiar territory. It helps that Evelyn, the nominal adult in the room, is wallowing in similar angst, allowing the director to create two parallel dramas where misguided actions may not exactly resemble the one and the other, but rhyme quite a great deal. And then, deftly, he dissipates the tension—without resolving all conflicts—in a way that is both true to the characters and deeply satisfying.

The technical elements are all solid, never flashy but perfect for the ordinary surroundings. Though text and subtext include serious themes, Eisenberg punctuates the narrative with often delightful visual humor, including the sight of Evelyn’s orange Smart car zipping down the street. The performers are on top of their game and deliver alternatingly poignant and repellant turns that make them fully three-dimensional beings. When You Finish Saving the World may not solve any existential issues of our rapidly deteriorating universe, but it does unite two troubled souls, which is no small feat. 

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

2022 Sundance Film Festival; Jesse Eisenberg; When You Finish Saving the World movie review

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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