Ask just about anyone and they’ll tell you that they want to do the right thing. An instinct for altruism is natural but it doesn’t always come from the purest place. Plenty of times good deeds and kind words are as much about self preservation as they are about real impact. As the most insidious voices have grown louder in the the last few years, so too have the performative ones denouncing them. With his directorial debut, When You Finish Saving the World, Jesse Eisenberg has a little fun with performative wokeness.
Ziggy Katz (Finn Wolfhard) doesn’t care about any of the ills affecting the word, nor does he pretend to. He’s too busy feuding with a mother (Julianne Moore) who doesn’t understand him or singing inane original songs to his twenty thousand tweenage followers on HighHat, making him one of the most popular creators on the platform as he is eager to tell anyone within earshot. Ziggy’s world begins and ends at the desk of his home studio and that’s just fine to him.
His mom, Evelyn is facially the opposite. She runs a shelter for victims of domestic abuse and attends every protest march. Her walls are covered in awards and commendations, so much so that it can feel like she’s only in it for all that recognition. Her son has no interest in what she does and no ambition to do good. When a similarly aged kid, Kyle (Billy Bryk), brings his mother into the shelter, Evelyn takes it on herself to help parent the young man.
All these dynamics changes when Ziggy develops a massive crush on Lila, (Alisha Boe of 13 Reasons Why fame) the most lift, most political girl in the whole school. She rebuffs his inept efforts at wooing her by bragging about his internet fame and Ziggy decides that he has to become fully political to win over his beloved socialist crush.
The pair of Katz are both seeking to do good, but entirely for their own benefit. Evelyn wants to help her resident find his way into school, a noble effort, only to feel better about failing to raise a son that meets her standards. Ziggy starts attending DSA meetings and using his platform to sing songs about exploitation, but really he just wants to impress a girl.
Five years on from Trump’s inauguration we’ve all seen the two distinct counters to it: people who show up, put in the work and the people who want to moralize on the internet. Evelyn and Ziggy are awkward, cringy, highlighted by Eisenberg’s uncomfortable dialogue. Ziggy speaks in almost unintelligible Zoomer internet lingo, while Evelyn can’t even converse with her receptionist without making the poor woman think she’s getting fired. Their interactions have all the comfortability of a Krassenstein reply thread.
Frustrating as they may be, these characters are not completely irredeemable. They’re simply the most well actualized representation of performative liberalism since Knives Out eviscerated it two years ago. Eisenberg pulls this off in very clever ways. His debut is competently constructed, if unspectacular technically, but its the ideas and his ability to tease out distinct performances that elevate When You Finish Saving the World. Lila and Kyle are the two characters that come off particularly well as young people genuinely engaged in activism and focused on solving the overbearing problems in his own life respectively. They’re the only ones being honest in their convictions.
Repeatedly Ziggy mistakes Lila’s activism for pure politics and talks about how political he too can be. Evelyn tries to force Kyle down a collegiate path that he has no interest in because it’s what she views as the right way to go. Like too many people in this new era of polarization, the characters of When You Finish Saving the World view important issues like impending climate crisis or global exploitation as signals of their virtue rather than problems vital to be solved. It’s infuriating to watch but a great reminder of how dumb we can look when we politicize vital issues. 7/10
When You Finish Saving the World is an A24 film and should see a release sometime this year