To see 17-year-old Ziggy Katz (Finn Wolfhard) on the street, you’d think he was a decent kid. He says no to drugs, he livestreams milquetoast folk songs that rhyme “foggy” and “doggy,” and he’s even comfortable sporting a pink knitted hat because gender stereotypes are so last generation. Alas, Ziggy has the rotten luck to be trapped in Jesse Eisenberg’s bleak debut “When You Finish Saving the World” where he’s surrounded by sin-counting idealists in a liberal midwestern bubble who consider the fame-seeking teen to be as unenlightened as the hairspray heads who once swaggered down the Sunset Strip — a claustrophobic mockery of do-gooderism that expands upon and simplifies Eisenberg’s 2020 time-bending audio drama of the same name.
In this unnamed Indiana town, Ziggy’s crush Lila (Alisha Boe), a poet who writes ballads against the colonialist occupation of the Marshall Islands, dismisses him as a moron. His dad (Jay O. Sanders) thinks of him as a statistic, another self-centered upper-middle class boy cluttering up the planet. Worst of all, his mother Evelyn (Julianne Moore), the dour founder of a shelter for abused women, thinks of Ziggy as her own personal failure — perhaps the only flaw in her morally righteous life. “You were my little ally,” she sighs. As a child, he’d dutifully attend protests to play pro-union songs on his kiddie plastic guitar. Now, Ziggy is trying to build his own brand. How dare he turn away from making her look good?
Eisenberg has made a satire that exists in shades of beige, as though he challenged himself to remake “Brave New World” in burlap. (He’s even invented his own slang — a challenge isn’t “difficult,” it’s “tera-hard.”) His characters couldn’t be angrier, but they pride themselves in trying not to scream. Here, people wage emotional warfare by asking others to whisper, or by passive-aggressively plotting ways to feel disappointed — i.e. feel superior. When Evelyn agrees to give Ziggy “five seconds” to grab his backpack so he can hitch a ride to school, she counts to five and leaves without him, presumably telling herself that he’s the jerk. To “When You’re Finished Saving the World,” being good is exhausting and miserable, and aspiring to be good is even worse. Joy exists only to be taken away. As payback, Ziggy calls his mother a hypocrite for loving classical music, a genre defined by rich white men. She shuts off the strings and one more pleasure is put aside. Even cinematographer Benjamin Loeb shoots nature as though the barren trees have pulled out their leaves from stress.
As an actor, Eisenberg has been one of the great caricaturists of anxiety. He’s tended to tiptoe through films apologizing for his own existence, and the films themselves often agree that his protagonists can be a bit of a drag. As a filmmaker, however, he’s chosen to let Wolfhard play Ziggy with the confidence of a kid who expects the world to like him, and is continually disappointed, the human equivalent of those baby monkeys who cling to wire skeletons shaped like maternal warmth. Ziggy is fine — or, at least, he’s not the instigator — even though the spinning red recording light he installs outside his bedroom studio makes the Katz home resemble a battlefield. It’s the rest of the town that’s the problem, although the only way Eisenberg’s screenplay can make that case is though extreme exaggeration, turning everyone else into a variation of the woke boogeyman regularly fever-dreamed on Fox News.
It’s odd that a kid this desperate for validation wouldn’t at least pump himself up by chatting with the girls who worship him online? But that would scramble Eisenberg’s argument that there’s no place for a well-meaning doofus like Ziggy in modern society — an argument that’s already muddled by the introduction of another student at Ziggy’s high school, an aspiring car mechanic named Kyle (Billy Byrk) who moves into Evelyn’s shelter and wouldn’t care about a locally sourced soybean if it bit him on the nose.
In Kyle, Evelyn sees a polite boy she prefers to her own son (and a new project, if she can convince him to scrap his own dreams and become a social worker like her.) She doesn’t see that Kyle’s manners are, in part, due to her authority over his housing. Just this portion of the film could spin out into a full story of power and obsession. Yet, as Moore takes her character from cold to chilling, she and Eisenberg grace Evelyn with an empathy she can’t extend to anyone else. If it’s this hard to do good, Eisenberg seems to be saying, can’t we just give each other a break?