WHEN YOU FINISH SAVING THE WORLD is a melancholy comedy about blindness and boundaries. Grounded by performances by Julianne Moore and Finn Wolfhard that are wonders of anger and pain and absurdity, it examines the volatile emotions lurking beneath a family’s thin veneer of civility as it reaches a breaking point when reality intrudes on the careful order that has been imposed by that family’s matriarch.
That would be Evelyn, and when we meet her, she is asking her staff to keep the singing at a an office birthday party down in order not to upset a woman being processed out front. She is absolutely correct in what she is doing. She is also absolutely off-putting in her execution of the request with the implication that her staff should know better. This is a woman who may inspire respect, for her accomplishments (see below) but not affection.
Moore and Wolfhard are Evelyn and Ziggy Katz. The former running a shelter that she founded for women fleeing domestic violence, the latter her 17-year-old musician son with an internet following for his music, and a hopeless crush that is unrequited. They, along with Roger (Jay O. Sanders) form a family unit that registers more as barely engaged roommates than anything with a permanent bond. Indeed, Roger spends most of his time with a book, barely noting what is happening around him, and keeping the interactions to a minimum. Evelyn brings the necessary professional reserve of her chosen profession to bear on her husband and son, politely inquiring about their day and barely waiting for a reply before giving the correct response. She also brings inflexibility. When Ziggy tells her he will be ready for his ride to school in five seconds, Evelyn times him and strides out the door without him at the end of that interval.
Things change when Angie (Eleonore Hendricks) and her 17-year-old son, Kyle (Billy Bryk), arrive at the shelter, Kyle tenderly holding his mother’s hand as she tells Evelyn what finally drove her to leave her abusive husband. Evelyn, seeing potential, or perhaps projecting it, takes a special interest in the young man. The nurturing interest that her son has refused, and that she has abandoned trying to give, takes over, turning Kyle into her somewhat bemused surrogate child. In him she sees a future social worker like herself, someone to carry on her legacy, if not the shelter she founded, then somewhere. What Kyle, or his mother, want doesn’t enter into it. In fact, the idea that they might have other plans doesn’t occur to her.
As for Ziggy, an earnest, awkward young man rife with analogous good intentions, sets about wooing Lila (Alisha Boe), who discusses progressive politics with assurance and passion, spurring Ziggy to re-invent himself to please her. She is kind. He is eager. It is both adorable and poignant in scenes where everyone, even we in the audience, know that Ziggy’s hopes are doomed to the kind of heartbreak that only a teenager in the throes of first love can experience.
Writer/director Jesse Eisenberg, in his feature film directorial debut, does not stint on the palpable desperation of these characters, and their enormous capacity for a type of self-delusion that is not quite complete, which fuels that ci-mentioned desperation. Similarly, Moore and Wolfhard are not afraid to be not just flawed, but also at times distinctly unlikable. These are complex human beings, particularly Moore, who has been so self-absorbed by her mission to, as the title says, save the world, that she has lost sight of what those closest to her need. It’s almost a cliché, but Moore, being Moore, elevates the trope.
He also uses a spare but focused technique in telling the story. Harsh sunlight becomes a metaphor, for protagonists unable to see what is right in front of them, and soft light is at odds with the inevitable argument that eventually flares between mother and son, as though dimming the illumination will make sense of Evelyn’s refusal to act as though anything is amiss as she sips wine with relish that her husband has deemed inferior.
Raw in aspect, but refined in approach, WHEN YOU FINISH SAVING THE WORLD has compassion for its characters that they might not afford even themselves. This is a small but mighty story told with subtle tensions rather than overt melodrama. It is a far more effective and affecting work for it, full of discomfort, humor, and astute perception.