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Narcissism at center of indie film

Mother, son struggle to see selves in each other

Finn Wolfhard and Julianne Moore star as son and mother in the new A24 film, When You Finish Saving the World, showing Jan. 21 at Cinema Center.

Brent Leuthold

Whatzup Features Writer

Published January 18, 2023

Playing at Cinema Center this weekend, the indie dramedy When You Finish Saving the World stars Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard as Ziggy Katz, a high school student desperately trying to discover himself. 

Using a livestreaming platform called Hi-Hat, he routinely performs original music for his 20,000 followers all over the world, which doesn’t quite register with his parents, Evelyn (Julianne Moore) and Roger (Jay O. Sanders). Also underwhelmed by his online success is Lila (Alisha Boe), a fellow student that Ziggy has developed a crush on due to her impassioned lunchtime political exchanges. The film also follows Evelyn and her work at a domestic abuse shelter, where she attempts to make a connection with Kyle (Billy Bryk), the teenage son of a woman seeking refuge at the Spruce Haven shelter.

Though the film’s title is never actually uttered by any of the characters, the phrase that gives When You Finish Saving the World its name is fitting for a movie whose two primary protagonists are unknowingly narcissistic and self-righteous. The central irony of the story is that despite this common ground, Ziggy and Evelyn have a stilted relationship where they just can’t seem to see themselves in one another. It’s obvious that the pair will reach some kind of reconciliation by the end of the brisk 87-minute runtime, but thanks to a pithy script by writer-director Jesse Eisenberg, the journey getting there is piquant and piercing. Adapting from his Audible audio drama of the same name, Eisenberg restructures his story around the mother-son dysfunction that has the most narrative potency.

Along the way, When You Finish Saving the World pokes fun at the wince-inducing paths that young people often take in trying to figure out who they want to be. Ziggy and Lila meet up multiple times at a “Revolutionary Arts” gathering, a sort of open mic where over-earnest teens trade spoken-word and song-based offerings in an effort to one-up each other. “This is about the patriarchy, of which I’m a reluctant member,” a young boy dramatically laments before sharing a poem. When it’s Ziggy’s turn to perform an original tune, his lyrics about graduating and loneliness fall flat for an audience preening for something more socio­politically enlightened. Still, he remains undeterred and his braggadocious passes at Lila contribute to the film’s finest moments of cringe comedy.

In juxtaposing his day-to-day with Evelyn’s, Eisenberg suggests that she isn’t any less guilty than her son of trying too hard when it comes to social interactions. She often comes off so severe to most that when she attempts to make small talk with a Spruce Haven secretary while waiting for an elevator, the receptionist feels the need to clarify that she’s not about to be terminated. Moore adds all sorts of touches to her performance that help us understand how someone so stern in their usual disposition could still come across as empathetic in specific contexts. She exudes the expected patience and understanding during intake with abuse survivors, but when Ziggy says he needs “five seconds” to get ready, Evelyn looks down at her watch and counts to five in her head before walking out the door.

Though the film takes place in Indiana (Bloomington, specifically) and there are allusions to IU and the Pacers, When You Finish Saving the World was shot in both New Mexico and Canada, likely due to their respective tax incentives for the film industry. 

Eisenberg reportedly moved to Bloomington with his wife, Anna, during the pandemic lockdown of 2020 and his newfound affection for the area and its people come through in his directorial debut. It’s unfortunate that Indiana is one of 16 states that doesn’t extend tax incentive programs for film productions, even for smaller-budget projects like this one. Until that changes, Hoosiers will likely have to settle for the occasional movie like When You Finish Saving the World that is set here, even if it’s not actually shot in-state.

More new movies coming this weekend

Playing only in theaters is Missing, a screen-life thriller starring Storm Reid and Ken Leung about a teenager who begins using various technologies to find her missing mother after she disappears on vacation in Colombia with her then-new boyfriend.

In theaters is That Time I Got Reincarnated As a Slime: Scarlet Bond, an anime film starring Ricco Fajardo and Kristen McGuire which adapts the TV series about a super-powered being and his companions who get involved in a long-running conspiracy.

Streaming on Netflix is Jung_E, a science-fiction movie starring Kang Soo-yeon and Kim Hyun-joo where the outcome of a civil war hinges on cloning the brain of an elite soldier to create a robot mercenary.

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