A gauche young man plays guitar and sings a song he wrote to the devoted pleasure of his parents. That was The Squid and the Whale, Noah Baumbach’s 2005 acerbic comedy of family disintegration. Jesse Eisenberg played the young man, while the song was actually by Pink Floyd which the boy was trying to pass off as his own.
Eisenberg’s directorial debut When You Finish Saving the World operates in the same milieu of upper middle-class, first world problems whose self-awareness doesn’t quite let them off the hook. Finn Wolfhard is Ziggy Katz, a high schooler with his own web show who live streams his original music every week. With that ubiquitous little boy lost vocal style – see anything from Paul Simon to Bright Eyes – his songs are not awful, but it soon becomes apparent that Ziggy doesn’t seem himself so much as an artist as a content provider who boasts of his followers and the money he makes without having anything to say. A typical song “Alumni Alone” bemoans the loneliness of moving from middle to high school.
At home his father steeps himself in red wine, reads books and is largely ignored but it is his mother Evelyn (Julianne Moore) who offers the sharpest contrast. She pretends not to know what a livestream is and listens to classical music on her way to work at her shelter for victims of domestic abuse. She’s a caricature of the “bleeding heart liberal” as old as Mrs Jellyby from Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. The woman who has fetishized her humanity and sent it forth into the world leaving none for her home life. She calls people ‘dear’ but has a frostiness that betrays her ultimate discomfort with actual people. She’s not a good hugger.
Both son and mother encounter – like parallel trains from one of Ziggy’s songs – outsiders who challenge them and make them wish themselves different people. For Evelyn the young man Kyle (Billy Bryk) is the son of an abused woman staying at the shelter. He is everything Ziggy isn’t: kind, sincere, generous and clever. Plus, he loves his mother. Meanwhile, Ziggy has fallen hard for Lila (Alisha Boe), a young woman who can talk politics with passion and attends an odd anachronistic feeling arts club where she reads her poems about colonialism and others give heartfelt renditions of the Internazionale. This part smacks of the kind of lazy Woody Allen skit, where the characters and situation serve purely as a set up for a joke. Or as Ziggy might call it a ‘lift bit’.
Lila makes Ziggy wish he had depth and Kyle makes Evelyn wish she could try again at motherhood. But they are both condemned to repeat their mistakes and in doing so perhaps finally to look beyond their substitutes, and towards each other. When You Finish Saving the World is fine. It’s well made, witty, and Wolfhard and Moore are effortlessly convincing in their roles; Wolfhard shucking off his Stranger Things image in the process. The problem – if there is one – is in the smooth snark of the title. There are sharp edges here that never bite. Does Evelyn have a sexual interest in Kyle, for instance? Everything is contained, polished and lightweight, like a well-executed cover version.
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John Bleasdale | @drjonty