In Jesse Eisenberg’s smart directorial debut, “ When You Finish Saving the World,” Julianne Moore plays a Good Person, at least on paper. Evelyn runs a women’s shelter for the victims of domestic abuse and other kinds of horrors. She drives a small, eco-friendly car. She listens to the classical music station. She eats Ethiopian food. She lives an unflashy yet undeniably privileged life, in a nice suburban home with her husband and teenage son. She is not, what you might call “happy” in the traditional sense.
Her state of being is more like one of smug satisfaction — or it might be were it not for her high school age kid. Despite all her best efforts to mold him in her image, he has become his own person, and it’s a person she doesn’t particularly like.
The kid in question, Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard) decided some time ago that money and fame were what he wanted in life, and he’s gotten a small taste of both through a decently popular YouTube channel where he livestreams songs for a growing audience of young girls who then throw money at him through likes. He is also smug, in a different way, and resentful of his mother’s sanctimoniousness. He couldn’t care less about her Good Work and Good Life Choices.
Ziggy seems to have been shaped in Eisenberg’s image, or at the least the image we have of him as an awkward, deeply insecure person who masks his insecurity with cruelty and intelligence in films like “The Social Network” and “The Squid and the Whale.” Wolfhard embodies the cadence and emotionless affect of his director’s on screen persona perfectly.
The heart of the film is the aching missed connections between mother and son. They have, they know, so much to be grateful for and yet can’t seem to rise above their superficial differences. It’s discontented suburban white people, sure, but Eisenberg keeps it fresh, modern and piercing. This point is hammered in, sometimes too bluntly, as both glom onto what they imagine to be ideal companions outside of the home.
Ziggy develops a crush on a serious, politically motivated peer, Lila (Alisha Boe), and tries on a social justice persona to get in her good graces. He has not yet learned to distinguish a woman’s kindness from romantic interest. And so he asks Evelyn for help on how to sound smart and political. Rather than using it as an opportunity to connect, she decides it’s a teaching moment to scold him to do the work. They are both right and they are both wrong.
It’s hard not to watch this and cringe at your own teenage brattiness, but Ziggy is not the only party at fault. He at least has the excuse of his wild teenage brain to blame. Evelyn, on the other hand, does not. The capacity for immaturity is boundless.
Eisenberg’s script goes hard on this very imperfect mother and Moore fully commits to her awkwardness and cruelty that she hides behind her Goodness. At the center where she works, she finds a stand-in son, a boy about Ziggy’s age who has come in with his mother to help her get some reprieve from an abusive husband. Kyle (Billy Bryk) is a wildly decent and thoughtful kid -- kind to a fault and eager to please. The fact that Kyle has emerged this good from a household so outwardly “bad” breaks something in her brain. She starts to claim Kyle as her own, dreaming about his future, taking him out to dinner, failing to see how uncomfortable she’s making him.
Like Ziggy’s obsession with Lila, Evelyn’s with Kyle is also immensely awkward. Maybe too awkward and maybe a little strained, even with someone as capable as Moore handling the material. The point is received very early on, though, and your patience may start to wane.
Eisenberg, who has already proven himself to be a talented, unsparing writer, shows promise as a director. He has not made a flashy art film, but it's a smart, biting and occasionally sweet character piece about unlikable characters that you still may want to root for, because, though it may be hard to admit, they’re not so different from us.
“When You Finish Saving the World,” an A24 release in theaters Friday, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for “language.” Running time: 88 minutes. Three stars out of four.
MPA Definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr.