January 16, 2023

SCREEN | Mother vs. Son – 'When You Finish Saving the World'

"Everyone around me is a narcissist."
Julianne Moore Finn Wolfhard Jesse Eisenberg | When You Finish Saving the World A24
A24 / Sphere Films
Acclaimed actor/playwright Jesse Eisenberg makes his screenwriting and directorial debut in the indie coming-of-age cringefest, When You Finish Saving the World, based on his 2020 audio drama of the same name. Julianne Moore and Finn Wolfhard star sublimely as a high-strung do-gooder mother and her self-involved teenage consumerist son with a contentious relationship due to their generational divide and shared tendencies of oblivious narcissism.

Moore and Wolfhard are wonderfully caustic as a family who constantly butts heads (Jay O. Sanders also delights in the background as the put-upon husband/father) because of their opposition in personalities and shared vein of shameless self-absorption. She runs a shelter for domestic violence victims while also seeking a young protégée to mould. He's a politically unenlightened livestream musician (wearing his own merch far too often) desperately trying to impress his anti-colonialist poet crush (Alisha Boe).

How this mother-son disconnect unfolds separately in their personal and professional lives away from each other as they live in the same upper-class suburban midwestern household reveals itself in biting fashion. While resisting too many contemporary details from our digital age like smartphones or social media (aside from a fictional livestreaming video platform called "HiHat"), the film fills its ninety-minute runtime of family dramedy with subtle but key personality traits to heighten the pointedness of the satire.

Produced by his Zombieland co-star Emma Stone, Eisenberg takes risks dramaticaly but is so clear-eyed in his confident material and the performance of his actors despite their tricky roles. The darkly satirical humour about the hollowness of parts of contemporary youth culture and parenting teenagers is arguably too real in its dramatization. When You Finish Saving the Word proves to be deeply cutting thanks to a wealth of sophisticated yet bittersweet jokes at the characters' expense. It's hard not to wince or look away when the self-absorbed mother and son make the same cringey mistakes in exactly opposite ways.

When You Finish Saving the Word screens at the VIFF Centre starting January 20th.

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