Jesse Eisenberg explores isolationism within the modern family in his recent directorial debut, When You Finish Saving the World, which he also wrote. In this comedic drama, he poses the interesting question - what gives our lives meaning, and does that necessarily equate to happiness?
The film opens with Evelyn Katz (Julianne Moore), a do-gooder, who runs a domestic violence shelter. Despite her tireless work to help victimized women and children, she is portrayed as a rather cold fish. We are introduced to her as she admonishes her staff for making too much noise while they are having a birthday celebration for one of the workers. When offered a piece of cake, she awkwardly declines and abruptly exits - it's as if she has an aversion to any type of joyous celebration & doesn't have the slightest clue in regard to social exchanges.
When she arrives home, we see that her interactions only become more difficult with her 17 year old musician son, Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard), a self-centered, seemingly superficial teen. Ziggy's focus is to become a social media music sensation, and he spends most of his time performing & streaming his blend of pop/folk music from his bedroom. The tension between mother and son is palpable as he scolds her for trying to enter his chamber while he is performing for his many online fans.
The Katz family is upper middle class & educated. No one is in crisis; however, no one is connected either. At its center is Evelyn, a woman who has purpose but lacks fulfillment. She doesn't understand her son and tries frequently to unsuccessfully mask her disapproval and annoyance with him while remarking he's a lucky boy. In a moment of vulnerability when he does try to reach out to her, she puts him off, telling him that he needs to do the work.
She is displeased with how he has turned out and especially annoyed with his values. The more she tries to get him to be socially involved, the more he seems to retreat into his self indulgence. One could easily equate Ziggy's desire for worldwide admiration to be in response to his mother's coldness and clear lack of approval. However, after he meets a young woman, Lila (Alisha Boe), who is bright, motivated and socially active like his mother, he finds himself wanting to impress her and attempts to change. Both mother and son have more in common than they would like to admit since both can be somewhat selfish and obsessive.
Meanwhile, Evelyn meets a young man, Kyle (Billy Bryk), when he comes into the shelter with his mom. Kyle is the same age as her son, but does not have a privileged, sheltered life. Despite his hardship, he acts extremely loving and protective toward his mother. This bond between mother and child is something that greatly moves her, and Julianne Moore does a phenomenal job showing Evelyn's longing for this type of relationship. Evelyn becomes determined - almost obsessed - to help Kyle achieve a better life. What begins as an altruistic endeavor becomes a somewhat dishonest, twisted relationship. Although Evelyn's intentions are good, they are also manipulative as she tries to plan Kyle's future life - the type she had once wanted for her own son, whom she has given up on. Despite Ziggy's apparent ignorance, he comes across as being more genuine than his mother, who hides her interactions with Kyle from others. Wolfhard does an excellent job at portraying a clueless teen, who is really trying hard to find direction while being alienated.
The theme of isolation is heightened throughout the film visually, by often portraying him locked in his recording studio, walking alone with his guitar and on the bus shown through the window with the outside world reflected against his image. Meanwhile, Evelyn is also shown alone in her office, unhappily confined inside her shower and continuously depicted through the windows of her tiny car while listening to classical music - the antithesis of her son's catchy superfluous sounds. The music in the film is another fantastic element that greatly enhances the story and the characters' states of mind.
This movie does a brilliant job at addressing the complex relationship of mother and son, particularly the disappointment parents can feel when they have tried to expose their children to "the right things" like protests, culture and advantages; yet, their children only seem to care about trivial things such as having strangers "like them" and deriving their worth from monetization. Parents can also relate to the issue of wanting a certain life for their kids, which may not be the actual life their kids want. The idea of finding one's passion, regardless of what others may think is also something that many can identify with. Finally, learning to accept and get along with our loved ones, who may have different values than us is one of the most important themes throughout.
The reason I watch movies is to feel a sense of connection. The best stories are the ones that allow us to empathize with and relate to the characters in ways we often can't in life. Eisenberg does an amazing job at just that. We are taken into the lives of these messy characters, and we grow to care about them despite their imperfections. When You Finish Saving The World explores isolation, reminiscent of The Graduate with its visual metaphors showing characters behind glass. It also left me with the same type of hopefulness toward the characters, finally connecting that I had when watching another of my favorite films, Me and You and Everyone We Know.
When You Finish Saving the World is a smart, beautiful movie told through Eisenberg's unique voice, powerful images and use of music & sound. This movie proves Eisenberg is not only an extremely enjoyable actor to watch on screen, but also an incredibly adept storyteller, who has created funny, rich and memorable characters.
When You Finish Saving The World is now playing in Los Angeles and New York. For more information, visit A24.com.